First things first. Technically, when teams report Wednesday to their stadiums to prepare for the 60-game regular season, it should be called summer training.
Spring training ended March 12 when the Grapefruit/Cactus Leagues were abruptly halted by the coronavirus. And spring itself officially came to a close June 20. So you see the problem here?
Personally, I like the term spring training 2.0. Captures the whole updated version concept. Maybe even shorten it to ST2, which I could see appealing to the younger demo that Grandpa Baseball desperately craves.
Anyway, just a thought. Given the fallout from the past week, and with baseball now finally on the horizon, there are a ton of things to discuss. So here’s a rundown of a few things on my mind, ready to unpack, since everyone gets to stay at home for ST2 over the next three weeks.
1. Labor pains. Sorry for diving right back into this, after it took three months to free ourselves, but I still can’t believe the torturous path we took to get here. Obviously, the owners and players have been adversaries for decades. The extent of that broken relationship, however, wasn’t fully realized until the pressures of this pandemic exposed those deep fault lines.
“We owe it to our fans to be better than we’ve been last three months,” commissioner Rob Manfred told the AP last week in the understatement of the year.
Will they be better? I’m skeptical, because we’re only 17 months from the CBA expiring and doing this all over again. Hearing the owners speak so fondly of revenue-sharing during this crisis makes me think this round was a pool party compared to what’s coming.
2. Irregular season. Not sure why people won’t stop arguing the legitimacy of 60 games, as if it’s even up for debate. There’s no point. Yeah, it’s 37 percent of a regular season, limited to regional play, involving two divisions. It’s different, just like every other part of our lives now, but it’s still baseball. And the World Series winner? As Mike Piazza was always fond of saying during uncomfortable situations in Metsland, “It is what it is.”
This year’s champ goes in the record book, like any other. We’re not going to forget what happened in 2020. If baseball is still being played 50 years from now, someone may have to remind their kids. Otherwise, we can add the mental asterisk ourselves. Based on the devastating surge of coronavirus happening right now outside of the Northeast, just finishing the regular season feels like a long shot.
3. Attention. Please? If everything breaks right over these next few months, the once barren sports landscape will be overflowing with live events, which will be an unprecedented feeding frenzy for the starving fans (as well as those craving to place a few bets). But that’s not all good for Major League Baseball, as its 60-game schedule must now go head to head with playoffs for the NBA and NHL, as well as the start of the NFL season. MLB typically competes with the NBA and NHL in the spring, long before the sport really heats up. Now the battle for eyeballs is going to be more intense than ever, and with the pandemic having a lasting effect on the sports calendar, it looks as if the NBA and NHL will play much deeper into the summer next year, as well, pushing baseball for room on a summer stage it was used to having all to itself.
4. A better tomorrow. There’s one advantage to playing what amounts to a radically altered season: You get to experiment. And by dumping some traditional aspects of the game out of necessity — such as pitchers hitting — baseball gets sort of a free look at things that might work better in the future.
We already knew that the universal DH was long overdue, so this just hastened that process, which is great. But the decision to place a runner at second base after the ninth inning, in order to prevent a seemingly endless game, is something that sounds terrible now, yet could become popular once seen by fans at this level. I’d actually take it a step further and try doubleheaders with seven-inning games, as perhaps a lead-in to eventually adopting the seven-inning standard altogether.
Plus, the 60 games will add an everyday intensity that the sport typically lacks for the first four-plus months of the season. Maybe that could prompt more discussion about cutting the season down to around 150 games or fewer, especially with playoff expansion coming at some point.
This season can be used as a line of demarcation between one era of baseball to the next. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also going to require cooperation from both sides that’s been a very rare commodity these days.
5. Fan-ning the flames? Well, that didn’t take long. After spending nearly three months crying about lost revenue from no spectators at ballparks, it was only a matter of hours before the owners started talking about ways to get paying customers in their seats for the agreed-upon 60-game season.
Earlier this week, Astros owner Jim Crane suggested packing 20,000 fans into Minute Maid Park, which has a capacity of 41,168, and all this despite Texas doing a sudden reversal on its reopening policies amid a troubling surge of COVID-19 cases. The state is now closing down bars within days of Crane extolling the virtues of having a cold beer inside the stadium. The Rangers also want fans inside their brand-new $1.1-billion Globe Life Field, but ESPN reported multiple employees there have tested positive. The Yankees and Red Sox already have mentioned the possibility of fans, but that seems more likely in the Northeast, where the coronavirus is now better contained. For about half of MLB’s markets, however, cases are on the rise. It’s going to be almost impossible to keep the players protected as teams travel around, so hosting fans just doesn’t seem realistic.