For as long as I can remember, baseball has defined my springs and summers, provided structure, a calendar, entertainment, travel, and many friends to share the game with. The sounds of ball smacking into glove, bat hitting ball and the voices of Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray and Len Kasper (among others) have provided the soundtrack to my summer.
All of this has always been as regular as anything in life, dependable in its inexorable march from a team’s 0-0 record, seemingly providing hope to all, only to sometimes see it end in a 65-97 failure. For me as a Cubs fan, there was the endless “When is next year?” question, at last answered in the spectacular 103-win regular season and World Series championship of 2016.
Now that’s all been upended. All of human life, in fact, has been altered by the novel coronavirus pandemic. It’s likely very safe for me to say that life for any of you reading this is not the same as it was a year ago at this time, or even four and a half months ago, before baseball and other sports shut down in very rapid fashion on March 11 and 12.
When that happened, did you think there would be baseball at all this year? Did you think it would be safe to do so? Did you think life in general would be back to “normal” by now?
Even back then, I figured that if baseball was played in 2020, it would be in empty ballparks and the next time I’d be in Wrigley Field would be spring 2021. Indeed, baseball has begun to be played in empty ballparks. It started for real Thursday in Washington and Los Angeles, and the Cubs will host the Brewers at Wrigley Friday evening. The ol’ ballyard will have no one inside but players, staff and some media and broadcasters.
Much as I love baseball, I have up to now been less than enthusiastic about this 60-game season.
Part of that is due to what Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners did in “negotiating” this 60-game season. There had been proposals on the table, we thought, to have a season of perhaps 100 or so games, starting in early July and ending in late October, with a postseason in November. That might have worked, even in the face of increasing COVID-19 cases in several states where MLB teams play, but after the 60-game season was announced, Manfred said:
Yeah, so... that means all the “negotiations” were lip service? Manfred tried to “clarify,” but only made it worse:
“My point was that no matter what happened with the union, the way things unfolded with the second spike,’’ Manfred told USA TODAY Sports, “we would have ended up with only time for 60 games, anyway. As time went on, it became clearer and clearer that the course of the virus was going to dictate how many games we could play.’’
“As time went on.” So you stalled, Rob, until it wasn’t possible to play more than 60 games. Oh, and MLB’s TV partners apparently balked at moving any postseason TV from its original October calendar. Pretty disingenuous, I’d say, and it left something of a sour taste in my mouth regarding baseball. It was 100 percent clear that baseball fans were last in line, an afterthought, in any discussion of what kind of baseball season we might have in 2020.
So it’s not the length of this season that bothers me — games are scheduled, they will be played, and a champion will be crowned — it’s how we’ve arrived there. Baseball has played shortened seasons previously, mostly because of labor disputes, but if 60 games is what we get, that’s what goes into the books and years from now, no one will dispute the champion — if we get that far. If we do make it all the way through and it ends with a championship being won in late October, it’s as legitimate as any other sports championship. As Cubs manager David Ross said:
David Ross on competing in a shortened season: "If they're passing out a trophy, I want it."— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) June 29, 2020
That trophy will now be competed for by... 16 of the 30 teams, as expanded playoffs for this year were approved Thursday. That could be fun... or chaotic:
Seeds 1-3 will go to the division winners based on record.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) July 23, 2020
Seeds 4-6 will go to the runners-up based on record.
Seeds 7 and 8 will be based on record.
Thus, there is a possibility the third-best division winner actually plays a worse team than the two best division winners.
It’s almost certainly going to allow a sub-.500 team into the postseason, or maybe more than one. Using the final 2019 standings, all of the seeds through No. 6 won at least 86 games. The Cubs would have been the eighth seed with 84 wins. But the No. 8 seed in the AL would have been the Rangers, at 78-84.
In a 60-game season, this might be less of a problem, as teams are more likely to be clustered near .500 after 60 games than after 162.
We’re also going to have the Toronto Blue Jays playing their “home” games somewhere other than the Rogers Centre, because Canada has a better handle on the pandemic than the USA does and the Canadian government won’t let the Jays play in Toronto, wisely so in my view. As of this writing, the Jays still don’t have a home field for this year. They’re currently in discussions to potentially share time with the Orioles in Baltimore.
Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, a thoughtful and smart guy, said something about this year that’s worth keeping in mind:
Here it is. The question was about some owners recently suggesting that there could be fans in parks later this season. Sean Doolittle's answer touched on a lot more: pic.twitter.com/M1eFONQpPZ— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) July 5, 2020
“Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”
Have we earned that reward yet? I would say in many ways we haven’t. I worry about the potential spread of COVID-19 among players, coaches and staff of MLB teams, who are now beginning to travel around the country. Sure, Central division teams have less of that than others. The Cubs will play 36 of their 60 games within a bus ride, in Chicago or Milwaukee — but what about the Mariners, who will have to fly to the Bay Area twice, or the Marlins, who will make three flights from south Florida to New York?
Players say they’re going to closely follow the protocols laid out in MLB’s 113-page Operations Manual, and in fact, the Cubs seem to be taking these very seriously. On the other hand, Washington Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19 recently, and that raises the following questions:
Trying to separate the competitive considerations of Soto’s test circles back to the question of whether there should be a baseball season at all. [Nationals GM Mike] Rizzo should not be faulted for making the assessment, for doing his job in trying conditions. But it is difficult to listen to it and escape the dystopian nature of the 2020 baseball season. This is not going to be a galvanizing symbol for a battered America. It is a desperate attempt to salvage revenue. It is a survival test.
But here we are, playing baseball. Might as well make the best of it. It’s going to be “weird baseball” raised to the power of 10.
“Years from now, you’ll say you were there,” went the White Sox’ marketing slogan when they were closing old Comiskey Park 30 years ago, and while no fans can be “there” as in “inside the ballpark,” — maybe this year can be “years from now, you’ll say you watched it all on Marquee — we can still have a shared experience of baseball. Life in America is far from normal at this time and might not return to any semblance of pre-COVID-19 until there’s an effective vaccine. Baseball, I suppose, can give us just a little bit of that back, something to cheer for, wins and losses, even if we have that awful extra-inning runner-on-second rule. I get why they’re doing it this year, but seriously don’t bring that to any 162-game season going forward.
So I’ll follow the games, write about them here, instead of a progression from 0-0 to (perhaps) 94-68, the 2020 Cubs will go from 0-0 to 33-27 and likely get into the expanded postseason. Not only are we going to have crowd noise in the parks and on the broadcasts (I actually rather liked the fake crowd sounds), we are going to have fake fans on TV, at least on Fox-TV games:
No fans? Not on FOX Sports.— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) July 23, 2020
Thousands of virtual fans will attend FOX’s MLB games this Saturday. pic.twitter.com/z9oQU0rYuC
Sometimes I think that MLB should have just said, “We tried,” and put off any thoughts of playing in 2020. Yes, I’d miss it, I’ve been missing it all year, and very likely, so have you.
But, again, here we are. They began Thursday and the Cubs will play Friday, and it’ll count, and I’ll watch and hope for the best, both for good health for everyone involved... and for the Chicago Cubs to win baseball games, because that has defined my summers for as long as I can remember. It starts this evening, 6:10 p.m. at Wrigley Field, Kyle Hendricks vs. Brandon Woodruff. A Friday night home opener — another first in this year of bizarre firsts.
I hope you all enjoyed the various series I ran here during baseball’s hiatus, from Cubs walkoff homers since 1960 to the worst losses in franchise history to the biggest wins in Cubs history to great performances by bit players to a ranking of Cubs by uniform number to the greatest homers in franchise history to the best starts in Cubs history to my ranking of ballparks. I had fun diving into Cubs history through what felt like an endless offseason, eight different series comprising 116 articles.
I also hope you have liked reading Sara Sanchez’ daily diaries about life without baseball; she’s going to be continuing along a slightly different line going forward with something tentatively titled “Pandemic Baseball Chronicles.”
Site note: With the return of regular-season baseball, I am going to reinstate the previous strict BCB no-politics rule for commentary. We need to be all in this together as Cubs and baseball fans. There might be articles here that cover political developments if they directly relate to baseball, but for now, let’s focus on the game, since it’s here. If you haven’t read the site rules recently, it might be a good time for a refresher.
It has been 299 days since the Chicago Cubs last played a regular-season game, and 306 days since they last played one at Wrigley Field. (I’ll spare you the boxscore links, because both those games were bad losses to the Cardinals.)
And now it’s time to play ball again! Be safe. And as David Ross said, they're giving out a trophy. Might as well win it. Go Cubs!