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Wojo: MLB, Tigers seasons will be fleeting, could be fascinating

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — After all the rancor and rhetoric, after all the poisonous posturing, baseball is back. And the good news is, a 60-game season is not the worst possible outcome.

It would’ve been worse if they slapped together some silly 48-game schedule. It would’ve been worse if baseball disappeared for the year. It would’ve been worse if they sent players to virus-infested Florida and Arizona to play in antiseptic geodomes.

Miguel Cabrera

As the pandemic danger persists, there’s no such thing as an ideal setup, and COVID-19 still gets to make the final call. We don’t know when this season will end, or if it’ll make it to the end. But it starts next week with teams reporting to spring-summer training — the Tigers will hold theirs in Comerica Park — and games scheduled to begin July 23-24.

For the moment, let’s do each other a favor and leave the disgust in the dust. Let’s stop griping about the owners’ and players’ demeaning of the game and consider it training for next year’s nauseating negotiations, when they have an entire new CBA to tear apart and put back together.

In the meantime, let’s view this truncated season as a fascinating little experiment, perhaps even moderately entertaining. With all the quirky rules, consider the endless possibilities and curiosities. For instance, I checked the guidelines and nowhere does it say a bad team cannot participate in the postseason, although it would’ve been more likely if the playoffs were expanded from 10 to 16 teams, as discussed.

Tigers in the hunt?

Still, with so few games, something fluky almost certainly will happen. And that means, for the first time in four years, the Tigers could be in contention deep into August.

Come on, if they’re 19-13 on Aug. 28 you’re not going to get a little tingly? Ron Gardenhire is 62, and from a health standpoint is high risk, having battled cancer and diabetes. Rules are still being finalized, but managers might not be able to visit the mound for pitching changes, instead pointing from the dugout. He might have to wear a mask. He will not be permitted to slap his players’ backsides after a home run.

And he still can’t wait.

“Is there risk? Absolutely there’s risk involved,” Gardenhire said Wednesday. “I’d never want to jump ship with my team, but I’m definitely a little uneasy about it. We know we got a pretty good baseball team and we think we can play with anybody, and this shortened season ought to make it really interesting. If you get off to a good start, nobody knows what can happen.”

Casey Mize

And that’s one thing the stubborn stewards of baseball — on both sides — couldn’t kill. Oh, they blew a great opportunity to grab the nation’s attention earlier, and instead proved arrogance has its own herd immunity. But they couldn’t smother the game’s cherished scent of the unexpected.

Owners are done fighting players, for now, and both must fight a horrible disease that could stop the games at any point. The regular season ends Sept. 27 and the World Series should be finished by late-October, a sprint designed to outrace a possible second wave of infections. We’d call it an admirable attempt to provide a sporting escape, except we know it was all about money. The players got their 100% prorated salary and the owners will get the TV revenue from the playoffs.

For the fans? Like I said, not all bad. They’ll get a glimpse at a bizarre new exercise in a bizarre new normal. With no fans in the stands, managers won’t be booed for making dumb pitching changes. That’s good (or is it?). As part of the 101-page manual of protocols, players can’t spit or hug or high-five, and nobody can argue with umps, at least not within a six-foot radius.

Oh, there will be downsides. With the implementation of the designated hitter for both leagues, fans will be denied the chance to giggle at pitchers flailing meekly at the ball. Please, let’s hope the universal DH is here to stay.

With the use of a minor-league rule designed to curtail endless extra-inning affairs, fans no longer will enjoy the giddy rush of waking up on the couch at 1:45 a.m. and seeing the game still on. Every extra inning will start with a runner on second base, dramatically increasing the likelihood of a quicker conclusion.

No, this won’t be a real, legitimate season, and nobody will care about the skewed stats. There will be so many asterisks, the Houston Astros will be jealous. (And good luck banging those trash cans with no crowd noise for cover). If a player tops Ted Williams and hits .407, it will be an amusing oddity. If a pitcher wins the Cy Young with a 7-1 record and a 1.39 ERA, yippee.

And if the Tigers have a shot late in the season, there won’t be a push to pause the rebuild and go for it. GM Al Avila has stocked up on young talent, and in a normal 162-game schedule, he might be tempted to debut one of his prized pitching prospects — Casey Mize, Matt Manning or Tarik Skubal.

Be smart

But it’s important to recognize what’s real and what isn’t. Vegas odds list the Tigers and Orioles with the lowest over-under win totals — 21.5 each — which means a 22-38 record for Detroit would be a success. Not really, but you get the point. The Yankees and Dodgers have the highest totals at 38.5.

The Tigers have arms to fill roles, with Matthew Boyd at the top of the rotation, and who knows, maybe a healthy Michael Fulmer back in the mix. But the uncertainty of a minor-league season complicates matters, and it’s highly unlikely any of the Tigers’ key prospects would end up on the 30-man roster.

Michael Fulmer

“You gotta be very smart about this,” Avila said. “We don’t want to be in and out, we want our organization to be successful and sustainable for the long term. We’re gonna do everything to win, but we’re going to be very careful, very methodical in how we handle our young players. … Obviously in a shortened season, anything can happen. If you talk to Gardy, he certainly tells you we have a great chance. You talk to Matt Boyd and our players, they feel we have a chance to get into the playoffs.”

That’s the rare redeeming point of this — one four-game winning streak can ignite hope, and one four-game losing streak can extinguish it. It took baseball a long, tedious time to get here, and it won’t take long to finish. By September, the sports world probably will be fixated on football, unless the virus shuts it all down, so baseball better grab fast.

Boyd should be the ace of the Tigers’ staff, and because he has asthma, he’s also a high-risk guy. No worries? Not enough to keep him away.

“This is the world we live in now, right?” Boyd said. “You have to be smart, but you also can’t live in fear. This is a sprint, it’s exciting. The knock on our team is we’re young, we can’t handle 162 games, but the season is flipped now. We have talent, we all know that. I don’t know what’s gonna happen over 60 games. The good news is, nobody else does either.”

For three aggravating months, the unknown threatened to destroy the season. In the next three months, the unknown has a chance to ease the pain, if not erase the stain. In the end, it was worth a shot, the only viable shot they got.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski