Nats, Yanks hope to set example for American team sports

When they take the field Thursday night for the first time in 2020, the Nationals will do so as defending World Series champions, having just raised a flag and pennant minutes earlier. They'll be sending their potential future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer to the mound. The opponents, the Yankees, are merely baseball's most-storied franchise, one sending its new ace, Gerrit Cole, to the mound in its first step toward competing for its 28th World Series title.

This would be a blockbuster event under normal circumstances, a celebratory opening night unlike any other this town has experienced.

And yet that only scratches the surface of Thursday's planned ballgame on South Capitol Street.

It's opening night for Major League Baseball, yes, but it's also opening night for major American team sports, which have been shut down the last four months due to a pandemic that has dramatically altered the way every person on this planet lives his or her life.

The NBA, the NHL and the NFL are all coming soon. But leading off, appropriately, is baseball. And so Thursday's nationally televised game will be viewed around the country as something far more significant than any previous opening night starring the defending champs.

"Absolutely," Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. "It's an honor to be the first game being played this season."

It's an honor, but it's also a burden. After months of very public haggling over finances and health protocols, MLB now must prove it can actually commence, compete and ultimately complete a (shortened) season without jeopardizing the safety of thousands of participants.

We won't know how it all worked out for some time, but Thursday night will be the first widely public display of the sport's intentions to pull this gargantuan task off.

"I think this whole season is kind of an example of the kind of measures that it takes to resume a lot of things during the pandemic," Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said. "I think it will be an important and kind of powerful statement tomorrow when people are watching the game, and there's guys in the dugouts wearing masks, and people are social distancing and players have fully bought in to all of these protocols. Because we want to play, and we know this is what it's going to take to have a chance to resume the season safely. If anything, I think the whole season - summer camp and the regular season - is just an example of the kind of lengths you have to go to in order to make it safe for people to work during a pandemic."

Despite some initial hiccups and griping about the delay in getting back results for players' COVID-19 tests, the system seems to be working as everyone hoped. The number of positive tests since camps opened has been quite low - 23 out of 17,949 samples as of last Friday - and that has encouraged players and staffers that the protocols in place can be successful.

"That's something that has helped a lot of players feel a lot more comfortable," Doolittle said. "I know it has for me."

Not that anything about this season will feel normal to anyone. The number of games has been reduced from 162 to 60. The schedule has reduced travel only to cities in the same region of the country. And, of course, all games will be played for now in empty ballparks, with artificial crowd noise attempting to make guys feel a little less awkward.

Those players and those teams that can block all that out and compete as though everything was normal are probably going to be more successful in this most unusual season.

Scherzer-Delivers-White-Side-Sidebar.jpg"The way I see it it's still 60 feet, six inches and I still got to throw that ball over the plate, whether there is fans or not," Scherzer said. "There's been plenty of times in my life where I've pitched and there has been no fans and I've had to go out there and pitch, when I was growing up. Just like a bunch of big kids playing in a stadium. I believe we are going to be able to do it."

The lack of fans in attendance will be impossible to ignore Thursday night, though, as the Nationals attempt to celebrate their championship in a passionless ballpark.

The team announced today it will be raising both a 2019 World Series champions flag in the center field plaza and pennant high atop the scoreboard to forever reside next to the Senators' 1924, 1925 and 1933 pennants that have been in place since Nationals Park opened 12 years ago.

There will be other reminders of what the country is currently experiencing outside the sports world. Dr. Anthony Fauci will throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Doolittle. D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser will have the ceremonial "Play ball!" declaration. A pre-recorded version of the national anthem will be sung by the immensely popular D.C. Washington, as many eyes turn toward the two teams of players lined up on the field to see if anyone takes a knee in protest of police brutality and racial inequality.

The Nationals announced today that "in conjunction with Major League Baseball," they "stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and will utilize the platform and national stage of opening day to express support for the fight against systemic racism and injustice.

Yes, it's a ballgame. A big one, with star power and champions past and present. But this year, opening night has taken on far greater significance.

"A unique season, one where we know there will be so many eyes on it, I think it'll be emotional for fans that are huge fans of each team," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "But I think it'll be emotional for sports fans being able to see baseball return and see that kind of marquee matchup. I absolutely have an appreciation for that. Hopefully we can go out and put on a good show."

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