If you’ve been listening to sports radio at all for the past three months (guilty), along with the endless discussions of the Michael Jordan documentary and the nostalgic recollections of great and mediocre games of yore, you’ve heard a lot of fans not simply bemoaning the absence of baseball but begging for its return. In any format, they say. With any modifications, they say. Just give us the games. Please.
It appears these hopes will be rewarded. According to an announcement by Major League Baseball late Tuesday, “spring” training will begin July 1, mostly in home stadiums, and a 60-game schedule will commence on July 23, with the playoffs, in their familiarly established format, to follow.
Great news, yes? Be careful what you wish for, I say.
I’m not unsympathetic. For the past 60 years, the months from April to October have meant baseball to me: daily games on television or on the car radio on the way somewhere, to a funeral or the beach or, many decades ago, under the covers at night, with a transistor plugged into my ear.
So I get it. I’ve binged on some excellent television series during the coronavirus lockdown (have you seen “Money Heist?”) but the hunger for baseball and a baseball season is ravenously real. And no doubt I’ll succumb to the primordial yearning and pay attention. The question is: Is this baseball? Sixty games? Thirty-seven percent of a real season? Any real fan recognizes the 162-game span of a normal season is a period of winnowing, of separating the top teams from the merely good ones, of allowing time for injuries to happen and heal, losing streaks to end and turn around, cold bats to become red hot (and vice versa); in other words, of allowing the cream to rise to the top. Washingtonians should be especially appreciative of this; had last season ended after 60 games, the Nationals, the eventual World Series champs, wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
It seems likely, though it isn’t certain, that this so-called season will be spectator free — or if not, then spectator-lite — which means most of us will experience it solely on television and radio. Without the sounds of the stadium — unless, of course, the networks decide to pump in artificial crowd noise like a laugh track for a sitcom — the games will sound more like midweek junior high games after school with a couple of teenage girlfriends hanging around than big league contests with money, reputations, careers and colossal fan loyalties on the line. Plus, we’ll be more at the mercy of the game announcers, as if we don’t hear too much from them already.
And then there are the rule changes. You’ve heard about them? One good thing is that the rule that says a relief pitcher has to throw to at least three batters or end an inning was going to be put in place anyway, so this year can be looked at as an experiment to see if it helps shorten games. But in extra innings this season, every half-inning begins with a runner on second! This is a travesty, a Little League version of big league ball. I’m not even sure of the purpose. To reduce the number of long games? To give players a rest after a short spring training? I thought we wanted more baseball, not less. And the National League will have the designated hitter foisted on it for the first time. I had a hard enough time getting used to it 47 years ago in the American League.
Meanwhile, baseball, the quintessential statistics game, requires a certain knowledge from its true fans, an acknowledgment and memory of numerical standards: 56, 61, 755 (Sorry, Mr. Bonds) — these things have meaning. And what about records? No season-long records can be broken this year. Phooey on that. Aaron Judge blasts 40 homers in 60 games, Stephen Strasburg has a 0.98 ERA, or Mike Trout hits .430, and everyone will wonder for the rest of time what they would have done with a full schedule. Even single-game records will be called into question. Suppose a National League designated hitter, who wouldn’t even be in the lineup in a regular year, hits five homers in a game or breaks Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak? Does that count? On the one hand, the pitcher who gives up a hit to drive in that extra-inning base runner from second won’t be charged with an earned run. (He should be, in my opinion.) But how about the batter who knocks the runner in? Is that a legit RBI?
Finally, health concerns will have an effect on the game as we know it as well. Substitute players won’t be sitting in the dugout, but in the stands, six feet apart. (Will they be allowed hot dogs and popcorn?) A ball will get thrown out of play after multiple players touch it. (How many is multiple? I don’t know. If it’s two, that means almost every pitch. This should restore the time that’s saved with those relief pitchers.)
No players will be allowed to high-five, do their complicated congratulatory handshakes or otherwise celebrate with physical contact, which to my mind robs the TV watcher of a lot of the joy of watching. And when the manager comes out to argue with an umpire, will he maintain social distancing? That’s no fun. No tobacco chewing. No sunflower seeds, which might be especially tough on the players, because so many crunch on them in the dugout, but at least we’ll be spared watching them spew out the shells.
Which brings me to no spitting. Does baseball exist without spitting? I guess we’ll find out.