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Reflections on the conclusion of the weirdest baseball regular season any of us has ever seen

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MLB made it through their 60-game season. Were you surprised?

Photos by @WillByington / www.willbyington.com

Two months ago, just as the Cubs were about to get their 60-game 2020 season under way, I wrote this article noting my lack of enthusiasm about MLB trying to play baseball during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Part of that lack of enthusiasm was due to the contentious negotiations between owners and players about the length of the season, player salaries, etc. Those sorts of things always leave a bad taste in fans’ mouths, and unfortunately that’s likely to get worse a year from now, when the MLB/MLBPA collective-bargaining agreement expires and they’ll sit down and try to hash out a new one.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Today, I actually want to celebrate Major League Baseball. They made it through the season and the 30 teams played all but two of the scheduled games — the makeup doubleheader between the Cardinals and Tigers that was cancelled when St. Louis clinched a postseason berth Sunday.

Yes, there were disruptions. Yes, there were outbreaks of COVID-19 on several teams, notably the Cardinals (who had to play 11 doubleheaders as a result) and the Marlins (who had 18 players test positive), but after players reported to Summer Camp there weren’t any serious illnesses reported from COVID-19 exposure and the Cubs took the protocols seriously enough that they had no positive tests among players, the only team to do so. After Indians pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac went out when they shouldn’t while the team was in Chicago to play the White Sox, MLB tightened up the protocols and Clevinger wound up traded to the Padres.

With all the postponements and games moved, just seven of the 30 teams played exactly 30 home games and 30 road games: Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Indians, White Sox, Royals and Rangers. (Despite some home teams batting first in some doubleheader games, statistics were kept based on where the games were played.)

Also, baseball did the right thing by not having any fans in attendance. Yes, that cost them a reported 40 percent of total MLB revenue, but having fans in the stands this summer and fall could have cost lives. Commissioner Rob Manfred last week said they’re planning on having fans in the stands at the NLCS and World Series in Arlington, Texas, and I wrote last week that was a bad idea and I still feel that way. No announcement of ticket sales has been made and I hope they change their minds and don’t do it. Putting (perhaps) 10,000 fans together along with baseball players, coaches and staff is a bad idea right now. MLB is going to the trouble of creating several postseason “bubbles” in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Arlington, which is a good idea. Why risk an outbreak by bringing outside people into one of those bubbles?

I didn’t think I would enjoy this shortened season, but as the days went by and the Cubs got off to a good start, I found myself getting into the games and the day-to-day progress of the team, just as I would have in any other season. For me, someone who attends every Cubs home game, it was quite odd to watch games played in Wrigley Field on TV. Of course, it wasn’t just me, no one could go to games and the empty parks looked odd at first, then it’s something that just became a part of the 2020 season.

The Cubs’ good start was followed by some losing streaks and after beginning 13-3, they went just 21-23 the rest of the way, but that was good enough for a division title, their third in the last five years. The 34-26 record produced a .567 winning percentage. That would result in 92 wins in a 162-game season, a perfectly fine record for a division winner. The division was won, in fact, despite only three hitters (Willson Contreras, Ian Happ and Jason Heyward) having anything close to good seasons and one Cub (Javier Baez) arguably the worst everyday player in the major leagues in 2020 — his .599 OPS was his lowest since his rookie year, 2014.

The pitching staff picked up a lot of the slack. Yu Darvish had a wonderful season that makes him a top Cy Young contender, Kyle Hendricks had his usual Professor year and the bullpen, which was horrific at the beginning of the season, turned into a strength. Even Craig Kimbrel, whose first season-plus as a Cub was awful, was almost completely lights-out over his last 14 appearances: 12⅔ innings, 1.24 ERA, 0.868 WHIP, .098 opponents BA, 26 strikeouts of 49 total batters faced. That, plus the addition of Jeremy Jeffress this year, should give David Ross two solid relievers to call on in the late innings.

Speaking of Ross, kudos to him on his first year as manager of the Cubs, a season that he couldn’t possibly have planned for. He’s kept the team engaged and on an even keel and of course you’re unhappy with some of his lineup selections and relief choices because that’s what fans do to any manager. But Ross has done an outstanding job and shown all of us why he was considered a potential future manager when he was playing.

Remember what Ross said just before Summer Camp began?

There might not be a parade at all for this year’s champion given the pandemic, but yes, they’re passing out a trophy and the Cubs surely want it. Eight teams will begin the pursuit Tuesday, eight others (including the Cubs) start the postseason road Wednesday. We’ve gotten this far. Embrace this weird season, we (hopefully) will never see its likes again.

And I hope about four weeks from now, Ross and the Cubs are hoisting that trophy.