FAST TIMES ON A COVID BYE

in Commentary

MLB Opening Day 2.0 ushers in abbreviated, mutated version of America’s pastime

Gone will be the lazy, hazy days of summer we all once knew as the Major League Baseball season. Since 1869, professional baseball provided a marathon of games progressing slowly but surely from Spring Training to the Fall Classic.

But thanks to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the crazy, long-awaited, delayed MLB 2020 season has finally arrived. Resembling a shaken soda blowing its bottle cap off, all 30 teams will come out of the gate on a sprint to the finish line.

With Opening Day 2.0 Thursday evening, American baseball fans embarked on a whirlwind ride with enough unorthodox rule changes to tie us all up into pretzels. And by the time it’s over, we’re all going to wish we could have just sat back and enjoyed a beer at the ballpark.

That’s right, sports fans…Major League Baseball has finally returned. In fact, Saturday delivers the first slate of 15 games featuring all 30 teams playing on the same day since Sept. 29, 2019…that’s just shy of 10 months ago. And for most of us who love the game, that’s way too long.

Now, thanks in large part to COVID-19, the 2020 MLB season will be way too short. Forget about the grinding 162-game season we’ve known as the norm since 1961 as it will be replaced with a regionalized 60-game sampling. And in an effort to somewhat compensate, the owners and the MLB Players Association agreed to a plan Thursday to expand the postseason field from 10 teams to 16 this season.

So, let’s break that down. During the 60-game regular season schedule, teams will play a division and region-heavy schedule. For example, the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers will play 40 games against American League opponents, and 20 against teams from the National League West. In other words, powerhouse franchises like the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, will not play each other until October, if they play at all.

With that said, the revamped schedule could definitely provide some advantages and disadvantages for playoff contenders and ultimately alter the seeds. But by sending 16 teams into the October postseason, the second-place teams in each division will now make the postseason automatically, and the seventh and eighth teams in each league will be chosen from the best records remaining.

In the expanded postseason, the wild-card round will feature best-of-three-game series instead of one-game playoffs. The higher seeded team will host all three games, which will cut down on travel. MLB’s 60-game regular season will end on Sept. 27. The expanded postseason will begin Sept. 29, with the new first round running through Oct. 2.

With as many as 65 postseason games possible, the postseason will be substantially longer this season as the first round will be best-of-three, followed by best-of-five, and then best-of-seven series for the League Championship Series and World Series.

Here’s where it starts getting really crazy. The 16-team playoff format includes a televised postseason-seeding show in which top-seeded teams pick their first-round opponents.

Furthermore, the postseason expansion means 53 percent of the 30 teams reach the playoffs, and the likelihood of one or more teams with losing records advancing. If eight teams qualified for the playoffs in each league from 1995 through 2019, 46 playoffs teams would have owned .500 or below records. In fact, there would have been only three seasons in which all playoff teams would have had winning records: 2000, 2003 and 2009.

For better or worse, it’s what we’re going to get. But wait, there’s more. Now that we all have our heads around the regular season and postseason formats, let’s take a look at rule changes. Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the suspension of spring training, MLB announced rule changes intended to speed up the pace of play. While most were retained when the league implemented the abbreviated 60-game season, a few others were also added to the list.

Defying the baseball purists, the National League teams will join the American League in using the designated hitter — only for this one season, or so they say. That’s right, all 30 teams will feature a designated hitter in their lineups this year. For now, the league claims the implementation of a DH in the National League as well as the American League is meant to alleviate players’ workloads during a shortened season crammed into 67 days.

Extra innings this season will look more like a soccer shootout, or college football’s overtime. A baserunner, namely the person in the batting order who directly precedes the inning’s lead-off hitter, will be placed on second base at the start of every half-inning after the regulation ninth.

Rainout games will look different as well. Should inclement weather force a game to be suspended before it becomes official, the game will be resumed from the point of suspension at a later date rather than start over.

MLB will also employ a zero tolerance for on-the-field fighting between players as well as in-your-face arguments between managers and umpires. According to the operations manual, “players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.”

Other game procedure changes include:

— Any pitcher that enters a game must face at least three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning.

— Position players will be permitted to pitch in a game at any point. The league originally wanted to bar position players from taking the mound until their team trailed or led by at least six runs or entered extra innings.

— In keeping with health standards, pitchers will be discouraged from licking their fingers while on the mound. They may carry in their back pockets a wet rag, moistened only with water. If they use the rag, they must wipe their fingers dry before touching the ball.

Managers and General Managers will need to adjust to some roster and movement changes. Opening day rosters can include up to 30 players with a minimum of 25. Rosters shrink to 28 on the 15th day of the season and to 26 on the 29th day. There will not be a limit on the number of pitchers. The standard injured list stint for all players will be 10 days. And the trade deadline will be Aug. 31.

Despite all that, so much more remains unknown. We don’t yet know whether or not there will be the typical flurry of midseason trades, for instance. We don’t know whether or not large numbers of players will opt out midseason if playing doesn’t feel safe. And we don’t even know whether or not the stakes of winning will feel at all the same this year.

And then it gets really weird. We will be watching baseball played in empty stadiums with piped-in artificial crowd noise serving as a backing track. I know we have reached a point where baseball players have become as much entertainers as athletes, but this is getting ridiculous.

Without question, the 145th official MLB season will be like none other we have ever seen before in so many ways. For most of us, it’s going to be a really weird season — uncomfortable and even unsettling. But wait a minute. Wasn’t Major League Baseball supposed be the comforting return to normal we’ve all been waiting for?

So much for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those days of soda and pretzels and beer. In 2020, we will all just have to settle for the COVID conundrum.

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