Play ball! …
And not much else.
No fans. No hot dogs. No “Beer here!” No programs.
No high-fives. No chewing tobacco. No locker room interviews.
The actual game that began in two cities last night — and starts tonight for the Detroit Tigers in Cincinnati — is still baseball between the white lines. But it’s something else outside them.
“How strange has it been?” I asked Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer earlier this week, as he prepared for the virus-shortened season.
“On a scale of 1 to 10,” he replied, “it’s been a 12.”
Sounds about right. If you were tested, retested and tested again, if you were told old habits were disallowed — no spitting, no sunflower seeds, no group celebrations — if you were told you can’t sit close to anyone else in the dugout — and, by the way, some of you will be sitting in the stands — you’d give it a 12 as well.
“It’s been extremely weird and a little off-putting,” Fulmer said, “but we’re excited to get started.”
On that, we can agree. After four months without a single major American sports team in action, four months without a highlight, four months in which, frankly, we wondered if we’d see any sports at all in 2020, baseball has finally returned, breaking the vise grip that COVID-19 had on our athletic universe. It feels like a small victory, doesn’t it?
Play ball. A box score is manna from heaven. We have standings again! Someone is in first place, someone is in last. Fans can watch and rewatch actual “SportsCenter” highlights. Some may have to pinch themselves and say, “Hey, this DID happen today and not five years ago, right?”
Hey, it could happen
Weird? Sure, it’s weird. For one thing, the season is 60 games. That’s 102 games less than normal — or as one mathematics genius calculated, every game this year is worth 2.7 games in a normal year. It’s like aging as a dog.
Let’s face it. A team wins five in a row, fans will be talking playoffs. Lose five in a row, they might feel the season’s over. But wait! Thanks to a last-minute agreement between the players and owners, baseball just expanded its playoffs from 10 teams to 16 teams. That’s 16 teams out of 30 that will make the postseason! More than half!
Dare we say it? The Tigers … have a chance?
“You just need to get off to a hot start and, basically, I think whoever stays the healthiest has the best chance,” Fulmer said. “With us — with the guys this team has brought in — CJ, Romine, Schoop, and Miggy looking the way he does — this lineup’s gonna produce runs.”
Detroit in the playoffs? Is there no end to this strange madness? Already the season is nearly one third its size, its playoffs are 60% larger, no opponents that aren’t in your slice of the country, and designated hitters in both leagues.
Oh. Did we mention the games will be deafening — with silence? Unless your team chooses to use phony crowd noise piped into the broadcast, it’s gonna sound like a pickup game by the lake. No fans in the stands is more than just a funny look. It also means no real home-field advantage, no crowd noise psyching up a batter or pressurizing a pitcher. This will be baseball pure and simple, scaled back to how you remember it when you gathered a bunch of kids on a summer Saturday and played by yourselves.
“Even in the intersquad games we’ve had,” Fulmer said, “you just realize how loud the crack of the bat actually is now.”
The crack of the bat. The “whompf” of a ball in a catcher’s mitt. The chatter from infielders. The “whoo-hoo!” of players when a teammate jacks a home run — which, by the way, you may hear as it “clanks” off the empty bleachers.
These are the new sounds of baseball. What you won’t hear is managers screaming at umpires. That’s not allowed. And conferences on the mound — which won’t likely happen unless everyone pulls on a mask.
Striking out COVID-19
But there’s more. What about injuries? Some players haven’t had a competitive inning since March. Baseball is generally a slow burn, like well-marinated ribs. It takes a while — especially for pitchers — to find their physical grooves.
But when you cut the season down to 60 games, every night is pedal to the metal. And that will likely mean pitching arms breaking down, hamstring pulls, and other injuries that cause players to miss games. Not to mention the one everyone is worried about: coronavirus.
There’s no question starting the season in the shadow of COVID-19 is like sailing a “Game of Thrones” ship through the fjords. Who knows what might come flying out of those cliffs? Already, hours before the season opener, the Washington Nationals announced star outfielder Juan Soto has tested positive for coronavirus and will be out indefinitely. Soto was arguably as responsible as any player for the Nationals’ World Series run. So that is not a small loss.
But this is how quickly teams can be punctured under COVID-19. One positive test cuts a hole in the bottom of the boat, and, if not arrested quickly, it can widen and sink the whole thing.
Baseball will be offering tests at least every other day to its players. But that doesn’t account for the days in between. And unlike the NBA or the NHL, baseball is not operating in a bubble environment. Players are going home each night. They are taking airplanes to visiting cities and staying in hotels. While there are strict rules, rules are often broken, especially when players get tired of being cooped up by themselves.
It will be interesting to see how hard a team comes down on a player for a COVID violation — i.e. being spotted in a bar or going without a mask. And even if the players follow every rule, they are still heading home to their households, which means every spouse, partner, child or visiting friend is part of baseball’s experiment, too.
That’s a pretty big Petri dish.
“It’s all about responsibility,” Fulmer said, “and just relaying the message to these younger kids — and even everybody as a team — just to be careful what you do outside the stadium because what one person does brings it into the locker room.
“I’ve got a 1-year-old son and a wife. I can’t be having the virus brought home to them. So that’s why collectively as a group we’ve sat down and talked about this — just practicing safe distancing and off-field stuff that has got to be taken care of.
“But it’s ultimately a trust system.”
It sure is. There’s a famous line from the wonderful baseball movie, “Bull Durham” that says, “It’s a long season and you gotta trust it.” Baseball 2020 is no longer long, loud or even recognizable on some levels. Yet trust has never been a bigger part of it.
No Cracker Jacks. No ice cold Cokes. No seventh-inning stretches. But for the first time in four months, you can sing “Take Me out to The Ball Game” and actually watch one. Thank heaven for small advances. Play ball.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.