Over its many years, Major League Baseball has served the country in providing diversion during particularly challenging times. Amidst the stress of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting sharp economic downturn, that opportunity presents itself again. Tonight, MLB will be the first of the country’s traditional major sports leagues to resume play. It’s not the most significant development while the country tries to find some sense of normalcy to cling to as it navigates the pandemic, but it certainly offers hope.
As is the case for most every aspect of American life struggling to start up again, the planned season will look quite different due to public health and social distancing concerns. Games will be played before empty stadiums, the schedule will be truncated to only 60 games before postseason play and, to minimize travel, teams will play games only within their division or in the corresponding geographic division of the opposite league.
Games themselves will be different. Designated hitters will bat for pitchers in all games, including, for the first time, those between only National League teams. Another rule change aims to shorten extra-inning games by starting each additional frame with a runner on second base. And some players have opted to sit out the season for health or similar concerns.
Quite a lot for fans to swallow. Obviously, not being able to attend games in person is a blow, but even the feel of games on TV and radio will be different without crowd involvement. Teams are experimenting with pumped-in noise. Fortunately, none so far plan to place cutouts of fans in the stands, as some professional leagues in Asia have done. Somehow, the wave just wouldn’t seem the same.
Red Sox fans will miss the so-good sound of thousands caroling along with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” There will be no bleacher bums at Cubs home games to dismissively hurl opposing teams’ home run balls back onto the field. Colorful mascots like the Philly Phanatic and Wally the Green Monster will have no fans to interact with.
Still, it’s baseball, and the new season — even with all its shortcomings — holds the promise of diverting, entertaining and exciting a sports-crazed yet sports-deprived populace that’s been hunkered down while coping with sickness and death, job losses and school and business closings.
And further welcome diversion is near at hand, as the interrupted NBA basketball and NHL hockey seasons resume right behind today’s MLB openers, though also in empty arenas and under other limitations. Of great concern, of course, is whether the health precautions implemented by professional sports will be sufficient to keep the coronavirus at bay, the players healthy and the games going, but here’s hoping they do.
At the outset of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt famously called on baseball’s commissioner to keep the game going, even if the military enlistment of some players might lead to a diminishment in the game’s quality, calling baseball an “asset” to the citizenry and “thoroughly worthwhile.” The upcoming season, too, will be different and perhaps even less satisfying. When it’s over, expect plenty of asterisks in the record books. But for a country reeling from the pandemic — and for this historically baseball-enthralled region — it can’t start too soon.
The season’s first pitch is scheduled for 7:08 p.m. Sox fans will be excused for thinking the season really begins just over 24 hours later, when they face off against Baltimore Friday.