The Major League Baseball season starts Thursday night with the first two games in Washington and Los Angeles. By far, the 60-game schedule is not only the shortest in history, it’s also the most unusual, framed by a killer pandemic, labor strife, social-justice issues and questions about whether the season would - or should - be launched at all.
The season was supposed to start March 26, but spring training camps in Arizona and Florida were shut down March 12 because of a spiking coronavirus outbreak that has caused more than 140,000 deaths in the United States.
Over the summer, there were times fans thought the 2020 season would be gone. Owners and players had to work out safety protocol, length of season, contract percentages.
At one point in the discussion, there were going to be 16 teams in the postseason, almost assuring that a team with a losing record had a chance to win the World Series. This season, there will be 10 postseason teams.
Commissioner Rob Manfred had the power to implement a 50-game season at a time when players wanted to play more than 100, but that wasn’t a good option for Manfred, given that another round of labor negotiations is coming soon. Tensions are high between the two sides.
Then, when training camps opened during the first week in July, there were testing problems. Over the July 4 weekend, five teams canceled training camp sessions because coronavirus test results were not coming back in a timely fashion. The Oakland Athletics were three days late in starting their summer training because of the issues.
But the snags were resolved.
So far, 1.8 percent of players and staff have tested positive for the coronavirus since camps opened three weeks ago. Fourteen players, including Ryan Zimmerman and David Price, have decided not to play because of coronavirus concerns.
The game’s biggest star, Mike Trout of the Angels, announced Wednesday that he will play the season. He was thinking about not playing because he and his wife are expecting a baby in August.
Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who expressed concern before camps opened about keeping players safe, is happy with how the testing has worked.
“We can be an example to not just other sports leagues but to the general public about what it’s going to take to keep your employees and their families safe during a pandemic,’’ Doolittle said during a Wednesday Zoom interview with reporters.
Other sports are opening in a bubble, the NBA and MLS in Orlando and the WNBA in Bradenton, Fla. The NHL will play in the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Edmonton.
At least those teams know where they are playing. The Toronto Blue Jays don’t know where they are going to play 30 home games. The Canadian government will not let them play in downtown Toronto. The Blue Jays thought they had a deal worked out to play in Pittsburgh, but that fell through.
The Blue Jays were supposed to host the Nationals in their home opener next week. There’s a good chance those games will be moved to Washington.
Another difference this season is that Major League Baseball is more open to messages about social justice. MLB has said it will endorse players taking a knee during the national anthem. Players from the Giants, Angels and Reds have already done that.
Manfred mentioned “Black Lives Matter” in an interview before the June draft and said MLB will push for change.
Another change: In San Francisco, Alyssa Nakken, a former All-American softball player at Sacramento State, became the first female coach on the field when she coached first base in a Giants exhibition.
She won’t be an official coach in the dugout during the regular season. She’s part of the 13-person staff, but rules say only eight coaches are allowed in the dugout during a game. During the shutdown, Nakken spent time watching opposing pitchers the Giants were going to bat against, looking for ways to help the team’s running game.
Considering that the Giants’ manager, Gabe Kapler, also took a knee, it makes sense that a sexist or a bigot would have a difficult time being a Giants fan.
The game scenes will be different.
There will no fans, but there will be cardboard cutouts of fans and fake crowd noise. Advertising tarps will cover sections of a ballpark’s outfield seats. Coaches will wear masks, and some players will too. They’ll also be physically distancing in the dugout, and players will sit in the stands.
The Nationals begin defending their 2019 World Series title at Nationals Park against the Yankees. Nats starter Max Scherzer pointed out in his Zoom with reporters Wednesday that the Yankees, as an American League team, are an unusual opening-day opponent for the Nationals.
Scherzer also said Nationals players are good at following safety protocols to protect against the coronavirus. He said that the team knows that one player being sloppy about safety protocols could cost the entire team this season.
In Baltimore, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said he knows that going on the road - the Orioles begin their season Friday in Boston - is a challenge for players, but he said the staff reminds players all that time about safety. On the road, that means avoiding hotel elevators, pools, workout rooms and restaurants.
It is tradition in Washington that the U.S. president throws out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day, but Thursday night, instead of President Trump, that honor goes to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member Trump’s White House coronavirus task force.
Scherzer likes that Fauci, who grew up in Brooklyn a Yankees fan but has switched to the Nationals after decades of working in D.C., will be there.
“It’s fitting, considering that we are re-starting in the middle of a pandemic,’’ Scherzer said. “For him to be out there throwing out the first pitch, that’s a signal to our country. We can do this.’‘
Either the Dodgers or the Nationals are the favorite to win the National League and make the World Series. In the American League, the favorites are the Yankees, Rays and Twins.
But, there’s a new normal this season. So, how about a Padres-Rangers World Series? Or maybe A’s-Brewers?
Either way, it would be a fitting way to end a one-of-a-kind season.