Niyo: MLB embraces long-awaited return, even if it looks, sounds a whole lot different

John Niyo
The Detroit News

When you’re measuring something, scale always matters. So for anyone sizing up the challenge that lies ahead for Major League Baseball, a pennant chase that begins Thursday after a nearly four-month delay, that’s something to keep in mind.

At 60 games, this 2020 season will look and feel more like a sprint than a marathon. Yet as Tigers general manager Al Avila notes, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the United States on Opening Day and no real precedent for what the league is attempting to do here, “It is gonna be a small miracle if we get through this.”

The Tigers and the other 29 MLB teams will play in front of empty stadiums for the 2020 season, which starts Thursday.

Then again, Avila says the same about simply getting to this point, knowing all the legwork that went into it, from a contentious labor negotiation between the league and the players’ union to all the health and safety protocols that’ve been put in place. They’ve taken the grand old game and put it in bubble wrap, with byzantine rules now strictly enforced at the ballpark and surely some unexpected consequences yet to come.

“It’s been a long road, a long journey. to get here to Opening Day,” said New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, who’ll watch Dr. Anthony Fauci throw out the first pitch for Thursday night's opener in Washington, D.C. against the reigning World Series champs at Nationals Park. “It’s been a crazy year that has affected a lot of people, a lot of families. But I’m just excited to get back on the field and start playing the game that I love, and hopefully bring some positivity in this world with all the negativity going on.”

That’s the hope, anyway, as the boys of summer take the field with a surreal backdrop — empty stadiums, masked managers, piped-in crowd noise — and a strange sense of urgency.

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“Definitely,” said Jacob deGrom, the Mets’ two-time reigning Cy Young winner. “In a 60-game (season), you’re going to feel more pressure.”

Nearly three times as much, if you do the math. Each outing in 2020 will count the same as 2.7 games in a normal 162-game regular season, which only adds to the anxiety coming out of the starting gate. Consider that last year’s champs — the Nationals — were six games under .500 (27-33) and six games out of the playoffs at the 60-game mark.

“You get off to a hot start, and you can ride it the rest of the year,” said Joe Girardi, the Philadelphia Phillies’ new manager. “I think if you have a slow start you’re going to make it extremely difficult. You’re going to feel like you’re always running uphill to catch teams.”

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Making the best of it

That doesn’t necessarily change the perception of the teams to beat: Vegas oddsmakers still heavily favor the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers with their huge payrolls and stacked lineups. But the compressed, two-month season “welcomes more volatility,” as Tampa GM Erik Neander says.

So does the reconfigured schedule, perhaps. Take the Minnesota Twins, the defending American League Central champs who get to play one-third of their games in 2020 against the Tigers and Royals, two of last year’s three 100-loss MLB teams. Or Cincinnati, which opens at home against the Tigers and plays 14 of its first 25 against Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Or the Chicago Cubs, who only have to travel a total of 4,071 miles this season — barely one-third as much as the Houston Astros.

Of course, the Astros catch a break, too. They were the story of the offseason thanks to revelations they’d been stealing signs and banging trash cans on their way to that 2017 World Series title. The league suspended the Astros’ GM and manager, fined the organization $5 million and took away draft picks. But the players skated without punishment, and the fans early in spring training made it clear they didn’t approve.

But then came the pandemic — and an ugly labor fight — and now comes a season without any fans in the stands (for now) to voice their disapproval. Would anyone be surprised to see Justin Verlander & Co. make another pennant run, sort of like the villain in one of those old silent movies? Remember, this is the year 2020 we're talking about.

Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout wears a mask during practice this month at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.

Don’t worry, though, there’ll be plenty of ambient noise, something the players already have grown accustomed to in intrasquad scrimmages and exhibition games the last couple weeks. And just because the rules of engagement are different — no spitting, no high-fives, no throwing the baseball around the horn after an out — it doesn’t mean there won’t be any emotion.

“It’s going to be a challenge for everyone,” the Phillies’ Bryce Harper said. “But you have to remember, you’re playing for your teammates. You’re playing for the fans who are watching at home. They’re probably as excited as all to get to watch you play. I’m going to play my same game, still going to pump my fist, still going to play as hard as I can. (The fans) are going to be watching us at home, so they deserve my best. And my teammates do, too.”

Sure, some notable names have opted-out of this season — players like David Price, Buster Posey and Ryan Zimmerman. Others are still working their way back from their own bouts with COVID-19, including the Yankees’ D.J. Lemahieu (Brother Rice) and the Braves’ Freddie Freeman. Concerns about positive tests and possible outbreaks will be an undercurrent all season across the league. (It's one reason why the Toronto Blue Jays are still searching for a place to play their home games.) 

But there are so many engaging young stars that have arrived on the scene — Ronald Acuna Jr. (Braves), Juan Soto (Nationals) and Pete Alonso (Mets) among them — and so few options for live entertainment at the moment, the TV ratings figure to be off the charts this summer.

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Strange brew

There should be enough story lines to keep our attention into the fall, too, even if some of the sensory cues — the grilled hot dogs, the stale beer, Marlins Man — will be missing. And others will look a bit strange, if not comical. (Some MLB teams are offering fans a chance to pay for their own cardboard cutouts to sit in the box seats at the ballpark. "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," indeed.)

Gerrit Cole is the new ace of the New York Yankees staff.

On the field, the questions remain. Will the Dodgers finally end their championship drought? Can anybody compete with the Bronx Bombers now that Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are healthy and they’ve added Gerrit Cole to be their ace? Or is this the year relief pitching saves the day and carries a team like Tampa Bay or Milwaukee or San Diego to a World Series title.

Some of the numbers might be hard to contextualize for the average fan. This year’s home-run king might only hit 20 dingers. (Christian Yelich led the majors with 22 through 60 games in 2019.) The MLB strikeout leader will be lucky to reach 100. But maybe this is the year a player like Trout or Jose Altuve — or even the Twins’ Luis Arraez — flirts with a .400 batting average. Or that a reliever wins MVP for the first time in nearly 30 years.

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What impact will some of the rule changes have? The universal DH certainly alters the looks of those National League lineups. But managers won’t have the same flexibility with lefty-righty relief pitching changes in either league this season. And we’ll all have new strategies to consider when it comes to extra-inning games, with runners automatically placed on second base in an attempt to keep regular-season games from turning into all-night affairs.

Another crazy twist: Nobody has played a game yet and already the trade deadline is looming at the end of August. By then, most teams still will be in contention, but for the handful that aren’t — the Tigers, perhaps? — it could make for a surprisingly lucrative seller’s market.

It should make for a dramatic playoff chase, too, with divisional races going down to the wire and wild-card spots up for grabs in late September. Assuming they get that far, of course. But that's absolutely the plan.

“And as a league, just getting through the 60 games, the playoffs, and the World Series,” said Avila, “that would be the best thing that could happen to Major League Baseball at this point.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo