Would Carole Lombard -- an avid baseball fan -- be thrilled Opening Day is today, nearly four months behind schedule? Perhaps. But I sense that like me, she'd also say fine, but we have bigger figurative fish to fry. Or something to that effect.
Nearly nine months ago, Opening Day 2020 was something I was savoring to see...especially since I spent many years in the Washington, D.C., area.
Washington won its first World Series since 1924, when its team played in the other major league, as the Nationals outlasted the Houston Astros in seven games. Area fans awaited the home opener, the first pitch likely thrown by a D.C. hero, and the championship banner hoisted before a sellout crowd.
When the game takes place against the New York Yankees tonight, a local hero indeed will have the honors, someone relatively few knew of last October:
Dr. Anthony Fauci, now trusted by millions for his expertise during the coronavirus pandemic that's thrown the globe into turmoil, will get things started. A banner will be hoisted, but hardly anyone will be at Nationals Park. For now, all major-league games will be played without spectators.
And while the first day of baseball season usually starts a marathon, today opens a sprint of sorts. Covid-19 shortened the normally 162-game campaign, and negotiations between owners and players abbreviated it further. The Nats and their counterparts now will play but 60 games over slightly more than two months before a full postseason takes place.
To cut down on travel, teams will only play within their divisions and their mirror grouping in the other league -- so the Nats won't travel outside the Eastern time zone or face NL Central or West foes until the playoffs, should they qualify. (The Toronto Blue Jays, prevented from playing in their home country because of border crossing restrictions, still don't have a substitute home field.)
And the game itself they'll play will be drastically different. For health and safety reasons, spitting will be prohibited, social distancing enforced (many players may sit in the empty seats above the dugouts and new balls put more frequently in play.
Beyond that, some rules unique to 2020 will be implemented. For this year at least, all games will include a designated hitter, regardless of league -- not good news if you like to see Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner hit (and all can swing the bat pretty well). For extra-inning games, each half-inning will begin with a runner on second base, something many baseball purists deem inconceivable, a la college football's overtime rules. We'll see how it plays out.
There's no guarantee the 2020 season, shortened as it may be, will come to a conclusion. Despite all the safeguards, players or other officials could come down with the coronavirus, which could cancel teams' games or seasons. And baseball, through its very nature (players defensively "social distance" by field positions), may be the best suited of the four traditional North American team sports to survive a pandemic. (The National Hockey League will play the remainder of its season in Canada, which has things under far better control than the U.S.)
So what's going to happen? We'll begin to find out tonight when the Nats host the Yanks and the longtime rival Giants and Dodgers meet in Los Angeles. (Yesterday, LA signed outfielder Mookie Betts, one of MLB's best players whom they acquired from Boston in the off-season, to a long-term contract.) The other 26 teams kick things off tomorrow, including the Texas Rangers' first game in their new domed ballpark against Colorado.
Assuming 2020 comes to a valid conclusion with a World Series winner, will they be considered legitimate, given the brief season and abnormal conditions? That'll be up for history to decide. For now, let's play ball, watch or listen to the ballgames, and cross your fingers everyone stays safe.
(Alas, Juan Soto, the Nationals' young slugger, today tested positive for Covid-19 and will be sidelined for at least the next two weeks. What a difference a year makes.)