There will be no asterisk for the 2020 baseball season because the year itself is an obvious outlier in every way. Whoever wins the World Series — if the season makes it that far — will overcome the challenges of a three-month sprint inside empty ballparks during a pandemic. No other champion, to be sure, will have faced those obstacles.
“The teams that lose, they’ll be the ones going, ‘Well, it’s not for real, they didn’t play 162, they didn’t have the marathon,’” Mike Stanton, a former pitcher who played in six World Series and won three with the New York Yankees, said Tuesday. “But for the team that wins, it’ll be just as special as any other — and in some ways even more so, because of the trials and tribulations that everybody has gone through to get to that point.”
“This will be a year that everyone remembers,” Stanton added. “Everyone.”
Baseball, of course, will be just a small patch on 2020’s tapestry of the weird. But for a sport with such a deep and enchanting history, it will stand out as a singular phenomenon, by far the shortest season since the 1870s — before the invention of the pitcher’s mound, the catcher’s mitt and the infield fly rule.
Teams will play only 60 games, with opening day likely to be July 24. That is a week before the traditional trading deadline, when also-rans give up on the season and trade veterans to contenders for prospects.
Now, though, every team will reach late July as a contender, with a trade deadline to be determined. Think of it as forced competitive balance, when even the worst teams can dream of getting hot for nine weeks and stealing a playoff berth. Every game will count 2.7 times more than usual, infusing daily urgency to a sport in which teams often have time to coalesce.
After 60 games last season, the Washington Nationals were 27-33 — two games worse at that point than the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Nationals surged up the standings and won the World Series. The Pirates spiraled and finished in last place.
Then again, last year’s postseason field did not change much after the 60-game mark. At that point, the playoff teams would have been the Yankees, Minnesota, Houston, Tampa Bay and Texas in the American League, and Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League. Seven of those teams wound up in the postseason; only the Rangers, the Phillies and the Cubs faded.
For a while, it seemed as if this year’s postseason was destined to be like a preschooler’s birthday party, where everyone in the class gets invited. The last proposals by the players and the owners added three wild-card teams in each league, allowing more than half of all teams to take part.
Both sides agreed on that change, so why not implement it this October? Negotiating is the reason. The players believed that if Commissioner Rob Manfred was going to give them 60 games at full prorated salaries with or without an agreement, it would be foolish to give up a valuable bargaining chip by authorizing the lucrative expanded playoff package owners covet.
Rejecting the owners’ offer was a calculated gamble by the players, who turned down more money upfront for the chance to claim a lot more — perhaps $1 billion — through a grievance accusing the owners of bad-faith negotiating. The rejection meant that other proposed innovations would be shelved, too, like in-game broadcast enhancements and (thankfully) advertising on players’ uniforms.
The universal designated hitter might be retained as part of a 2020 rules package the sides must still discuss. Teams might also start extra innings with a runner on second base to spark offense and allow games to finish quicker.
The schedule will be limited to divisional play, plus interleague games with teams in the corresponding geographic division. So the Yankees, for example, will play their American League East rivals Baltimore, Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but also the National League East teams: Atlanta, Miami, the New York Mets, Philadelphia and Washington.
Doing so without fans will be jarring, but perhaps not for long.
“You’re playing the Red Sox, you’re at Yankee Stadium or Fenway, the place is rocking and rolling — it’s hard not to get excited in those situations,” Stanton said. “It’s going to be missed, but the passion for the game, the reason you’re playing, the competitiveness of every player — that doesn’t go away because there are no fans in the stands. The first week or two will be different, but then it’s going to be, ‘We’re just playing baseball.’”
Stanton continued: “You may have to go back to college or high school, or even prior to that, but at some point, everyone was playing with just the people on the field. I played in Atlanta when we had 1,500 people — might as well have not been anybody there — and select games around the league, same thing. There were always a few fans, but there was never any energy coming out of the stands, so it really didn’t matter all that much. They’re going to have to adapt, but I think they’ll do it quickly.”
Everything must happen quickly now as baseball dashes to the World Series while trying desperately to wall itself off from the coronavirus. That is the threat looming over players as they re-enter the work force.
As Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson put it in an ominous tweet on Monday night: “What happens when we all get it?” For all of the league’s careful planning, that is the question it cannot answer, and the one that would ruin everything.