Fifteen North American cities were set to hold Opening Day on Thursday, with the first games at 1:10 p.m. Eastern time. Depending on how quickly the umpires got around to yelling “Play ball!,” the first pitch of the 2020 season would be thrown by either Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians (against the Detroit Tigers at Cleveland’s Progressive Field) or the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom (against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field in Queens).
Instead, those 15 stadiums — and the 15 of the visiting teams whose home openers would come later — will be dark Thursday and for many weeks to come. The novel coronavirus pandemic brought the baseball season to a stop before it could even start, and if there is to be an Opening Day at all in 2020, no one can say for certain when it will be.
“It’s going to be weird knowing that we’re not playing,” said Baltimore Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde, whose team was supposed to host the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Thursday afternoon. “But there are a lot bigger things than Opening Day right now and a lot bigger things going on in the world.”
At Camden Yards, the parking lots that on Thursday ordinarily would be full of cars arriving for Opening Day instead have been used by National Guard units — on hand to support meal distribution and logistical needs — as a staging area.
Inside, however, the outfield grass is green, mowed in a complex, basket-weave pattern creating a blanket of green diamonds from foul pole to foul pole.
“The dirt is dialed in. Home plate is in place,” Nicole Sherry, the Orioles’ head groundskeeper, said Wednesday. “It’s ready to go. We could play tomorrow.”
At Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, where the home opener was set for April 2, one of the primary parking lots has been converted to a drive-through coronavirus testing site. The intersection of Pattison Avenue and Broad Street, for ages the hub of Philadelphia’s vibrant sports landscape, is now the solemn vertex of a crisis: Those in need of a coronavirus test are asked to enter on Pattison, exit on Broad.
Baseball has been dark since March 12, when Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended spring training amid concerns over the coronavirus, and it will remain dark until at least late May or early June. That timetable, considered a best-case scenario, is based on the mid-March recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ban gatherings of 50 or more people for eight weeks, plus a two- to four-week “Spring Training 2.0” to get players, particularly pitchers, ready for an abbreviated season.
The Seattle Mariners, according to General Manager Jerry DiPoto, “effectively told our guys we need you to go into offseason mode, psychologically [and] emotionally, and understand whatever time we get back to playing, we’ll have time to ramp back up.”
But even as Major League Baseball and its players’ union near the end of a massive, complicated negotiation over such areas as player compensation, service-time accrual and the outlines of a 2020 schedule, there remains no way of knowing when or if baseball can safely return this year.
“I wake up really early, thinking I have 47 things to do — and I don’t,” Hyde lamented. “I’ve never been home this time of year, so it’s a very, very unique and weird feeling.”
Beginning Thursday, the loss of actual regular season games shifts from theoretical to actual as each day’s slate is effectively stamped with a giant “POSTPONED” notice. There can be no makeup date given, because it is still too early to know whether the lost games can be made up at all.
Ideas have been floated to get the schedule as close to the normal 162 games as possible — including regular doubleheaders, fewer days off and a regular season that stretches into October — but with each week that passes, baseball moves closer to its first shortened season since a strike delayed the 1995 season to late April and reduced the schedule to 144 games. In the modern era, baseball has never seen a season of fewer than the 103 to 111 games teams played in 1981, when there was another strike.
“Both sides are going to want to get in as many games as possible,” Minnesota Twins closer Taylor Rogers told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s in both of our best interests to do that, and it’s in the fans’ best interest.”
Thursday was supposed to be the payoff for a bizarre and ugly offseason for baseball, dominated by the revelation and dissection of the 2017 Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, which saw four prominent figures fired and a separate investigation launched, though still not resolved, into the 2018 Boston Red Sox.
Thursday was supposed to be about hope springing eternal and players lining up down the foul lines for pregame introductions. It was supposed to be about Gerrit Cole on the mound in Baltimore, making his Yankees debut 3½ months after signing a record $324 million contract. It was supposed to be about Mookie Betts in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform and Anthony Rendon in that of the Los Angeles Angels.
It would have been Dodgers-Giants in Los Angeles, Cubs-Brewers in Milwaukee, Max Scherzer vs. deGrom in New York.
Instead, it will be another day of darkness.
“I miss the buildup to Opening Day,” Colorado Rockies Manager Bud Black told reporters on a conference call. “I love our sport. I love the people in it. And on the calendar, it’s supposed to start — and it’s not.”
On Monday, Day 5 of baseball’s regular season calendar, all eyes would have turned to Oakland, where the Astros, after starting the season at home, would be playing their first regular season road game. All spring, the Astros were greeted with boos, invective, crude signs and trash-can banging — not to mention high-and-tight fastballs — as fans and opposing pitchers alike took it upon themselves to dole out the justice that MLB itself chose against.
The team planned to beef up its security detail for the regular season. But now it’s easy to question whether — given the long, unsettling layoff and the somber nature of a worldwide crisis — opposing fans still will have the stomach for an all-out assault on the villainous Astros when the time comes.
Next week, on April 2, the home opener finally would have arrived in Washington, where the Nationals, after starting the season with six road games, would have raised the 2019 World Series championship banner in a pregame ceremony.
“Your internal clock [is] telling you it’s supposed to be baseball season and Opening Day soon,” Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton said from his home in Brighton, Mich., where the chill in the air feels like Opening Day. “It’s a really weird feeling because just being in a certain place can trick your mind and body.”
As long as there is a baseball season at some point in 2020, there still will be an Opening Day. There still will be a built-in villain, wearing an Astros uniform, and there still will be a Gerrit Cole sighting in pinstripes. And there still will be a defending champ, raising the banner over Nationals Park.
And perhaps it will mean a whole lot more than usual.
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.