Wojo: As baseball launches a new normal, Tigers try to shake their old one

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — The fans were here, wearing their red, swilling their beer. They were milling on the streets and packing the bar patios. They were here, on the outside looking in.

This is how it will be for 60 games over 66 days, and we’ll get used to it. It’s how it was Friday night, when the Tigers opened on the road against the Reds on a steamy summer night. It’s how it will be in downtown Detroit Monday night, when the Tigers play the Royals in their home opener, with people on the outside looking in.

Detroit Tigers' C.J. Cron (26) celebrates with Christin Stewart (14) after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning Friday. The Tigers fell 7-1 to the Reds to open the season.

If a team wants to make noise this year, it’ll have to do so on its own. At the Great American Ballpark, the empty red seats stretched to the skyline, with the Ohio River just beyond. It was eerie, but not completely silent. The sound system blared music and crowd noise at appropriate times, although the murmurs of the virtual fans sounded like birds tweeting, or bees buzzing. Not like crickets chirping, but oh so weird.

The Tigers lost to the Reds 7-1, which was all too familiar. Everything else was completely unfamiliar.

 “It was different, for sure,” said newcomer C.J. Cron, who clubbed his first home run as a Tiger. “A little less intensity, felt like nothing was going on, like a glorified spring training game. … Nothing’s the same. You can’t throw the ball around, no gum, no seeds, just the little things you’re accustomed to. It’ll take a little getting used to.”

This Major League Baseball season will be fan-less, thanks to the pandemic, but it doesn’t have to be spiritless. COVID-19 brought America’s pastime to its knees, shut down more than half the season and half the summer, and yet here, and in ballparks everywhere, the game went on.

What does it mean? Depends.

For the Tigers, it’s a chance to start clawing back to respectability, clawing that eventually should lead to climbing. Matthew Boyd was on the mound Friday night and was shaky early, surrendering two runs before he got an out in the first inning. Rough start, all the way around.

For the country, sorry, it’s not some grand psychological healer. It’s not even a sign of normalcy — quite the opposite when you witness the scene. It’s a step that could lead to more steps, and a slight boost to segments of the economy.

There’s an awakening going on in America — to social injustice, to health and safety, to the need for compassion for fellow citizens. In some ways, baseball can be part of that, and if something crazy and riveting emerges from the wacky schedule, all the better.

Feeling the buzz

“It was awesome, I wanted to run through a brick wall,” Boyd said. “I miss that feeling, haven’t felt it in a long while.”

He admitted he felt it a bit too much, amped up in an un-amped setting, and took the blame for the loss. He hit two consecutive Reds batters in the first, including former Tiger Nick Castellanos with the bases loaded. An inauspicious start for the Tigers’ ace, while the hitters could do nothing against Cincinnati’s Sonny Gray. The Tigers struck out 13 times overall, another too-familiar sight.

But as we’re learning, this season is about more than the game itself. The pandemic has brought some people closer, even as it has pushed others apart. The bad still far outweighs the glimmers of good, but we’ve witnessed the bad for so many months, nothing wrong with appreciating the good for a moment or two, or a game or two.

Before the opener, Tigers players and manager Ron Gardenhire wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, a theme seen in almost every sports venue. Players from both teams lined up along the baseline before the national anthem, then knelt as they clung to a long, black ribbon. Symbolically, they were bound by a cause.

As the anthem played, the echo was pronounced, and six Tigers — Niko Goodrum, Christin Stewart, Jeimer Candelario, Cameron Maybin, Joe Jimenez and first-base coach Dave Clark — remained kneeling. This is progress, to a certain degree, that all could express themselves as they wished, without vocal scorn from the public or teammates. On the scoreboard, “Black Lives Matter” faded to “United for Change.” Even without an in-person audience, baseball — and sports in general — still plan to make a statement, and good for them.

“We all know what we’re trying to do here,” Gardenhire said before the game. “It’s to make people aware of what’s going on in our country. This is for respect. There are things going on that need to change.”

This is not a hunt for normalcy, not anymore, at least not outside the white lines. The old normal is gone. But on the field itself, the game is the game, even with a bizarre truncated schedule, even with a 16-team playoff that makes everybody a potential contender, even the Tigers.

For that to happen, the Tigers need a lot from their best players. Boyd settled down a bit but allowed six hits and two walks in five innings. In that regard, it was too normal for the Tigers, who have been knocked around plenty the past few years.

Like all teams will do, the Reds tried to manufacture some atmosphere. Boyd said the weirdest part was the pregame introductions when each Reds player was greeted by silence. But when the home team scored a run or recorded a strikeout, the centerfield smokestacks still shot flames in the air. There even was a smattering of applause from a couple dozen people sitting in suites high above home plate, and when the game ended, fireworks went off.

“That’s the part we have to adjust to as we go along,” Gardenhire said. “The fan noise created by the stadiums makes it a little better. But it’s different than the fans above the dugout hooting and hollering.”

Screen time

Fans are on the outside looking in for now, and I bet they’ll be looking in on their TVs. Between the quarantining and the absence of other entertainment, baseball ratings should skyrocket. If an unheralded team like the Tigers somehow makes a run, interest would soar.

The buzz before the game was about MLB’s abrupt decision to expand the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams, meaning more than 50 percent of the clubs will reach the postseason. Call it gimmicky, sure, but don’t turn down a chance to take advantage.

“More opportunities are good, better for a team like us, trying to show people that we belong,” Gardenhire said. “Let’s show our fans that we’re turning this thing in the right way.”

Speaking a few hours before the start of the strangest season, Gardenhire then added what many were thinking: “It feels like we’ve been waiting forever for this moment.”

To get here, the game and the country endured immense pain, and will endure more. But if nothing else, there should be renewed appreciation for moments like this. When you have a chance to make a point, or change a mind, or alter a direction, you have to make noise any way you can.


Twitter @bobwojnowski