So here we are, nearly four months late to the party, trying to wrap our brains, and our masks, around the most … unique … season in baseball history.
And that’s a lot of history. But nothing in the previous 150 years — wars, earthquakes, strikes, lockouts and the stray lunatic or reprobate — has prepared us for this:
A 60-game season, replete with wacky rules, overstuffed rosters, empty stadiums, piped-in noise, cardboard-cutout fans, personal rosin bags, remote television broadcasts, socially distanced umpire disputes, 30-man rosters, expanded playoffs, a nomad Blue Jays team and more genuine curiosity — interspersed with unavoidable dread — than ever.
Those are the dueling emotions with which I approach this season. I’m ready — even eager — to soak up the fun and intrigue that comes with a presentation that has never been attempted. I’m excited to finally see the Mariners’ cadre of young players unleashed in a sink-or-swim environment with less time for adjustments and growth than could have been imagined.
But I still harbor doubt about whether baseball will be able to pull off the perilous feat of staging a full (in the revised definition of the word) season amid a global pandemic that could upend its best-laid plans at every turn.
For now, all we can do is go on faith. The first pitch of the 2020 season (the real one by Max Scherzer, not the ceremonial one by Dr. Anthony Fauci) will be thrown Thursday at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and off we sprint on this wild adventure.
The altered aesthetics will be the first jolt, but I suspect it won’t take long to get used to the occasional masked player, the empty stands, the absence of spitting (good luck with that) and whatever canned noise prevails. We’ve had plenty of sneak previews with soccer, golf, auto racing, et al, to prepare us for this brave new world.
It might take a bit longer to get back in the swing of baseball sensibility. Remember when the Astros’ cheating scandal was the rage of spring training? (Remember spring training? Me neither.)
The Astros’ mendacity is an afterthought now, thrust out of the spotlight by far weightier matters. It will be interesting, though, to see if Seattle’s Marco Gonzales, the first pitcher with a chance to institute some frontier justice when he faces Houston on opening day, opts for message-delivering chin music.
Let me refresh your memory on a few other aspects of this season that might have slipped your mind. (Don’t feel bad. I have no recollection of Carlos Gonzalez being in Mariners camp last century, er, last March. No offense, Car-Go. I’ve had a lot on my mind.)
Venerable Dusty Baker is managing the Astros, replacing A.J. Hinch after he was ousted in the cheating scandal. Joe Maddon vacated the Cubs and moved to the Angels’ dugout. Joe Girardi takes over in Philadelphia for Gabe Kapler, who takes over in San Francisco for Bruce Bochy, who took his three World Series trophies back to the ranch.
Mookie Betts is a Dodger (for another 12 years, it turns out). Corey Kluber is a Ranger. Gerrit Cole is a Yankee. Madison Bumgarner is a Diamondback. Anthony Rendon is an Angel. Josh Donaldson is a Twin. There’s far more, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
Oh, and Felix Hernandez, the most stalwart of Mariners for the past 15 years, is a Brave — in spirit at least, having opted to sit out this season because of coronavirus concerns. He’s one of several prominent players to take that route, along with Nick Markakis, Ian Desmond, David Price, Buster Posey, Ryan Zimmerman and a handful of others.
That’s as good a reminder as any that this season is potentially as fraught with trauma as drama. But we can still savor the strategic possibilities of the new tiebreaking rule, in which teams will start each extra inning with a runner on second base. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark points out, that leaves open the possibility that a pitcher could throw a perfect game — and lose.
We’ll see what it’s like to live in a world where pitchers don’t ever hit, their bats mercifully seized by institution of the designated hitter in the National League. It’s supposedly a one-year blip, but I’m the captain of Team Universal DH. I’ve seen enough of flailing pitchers to last a lifetime.
Will someone hit .400 or put up a sub-1.00 earned-run average in a two-month season? Would it come with an imaginary asterisk if they do? You’re going to hear a lot about asterisks in the days to come — especially whether the eventual World Series champion deserves one. But ultimately, it’s in the eye of the beholder how to view the feats of funky ’20.
You can make the argument that circumventing the unprecedented challenges in every team’s path makes for an even worthier champion. Or you can counter with the viewpoint that a season 37 percent of normal length minimizes any and all achievements.
What you can’t deny, though, is that the truncated length of the season makes every team a potential contender — especially with another layer of playoffs, and six more playoff teams, added at the eleventh hour Thursday. More than half the teams in baseball will qualify for the postseason, which will make it even more painful if the Mariners miss out for the 19th consecutive year. The aforementioned Stark even put forward a plausible case for the Tigers, losers of 114 games last year, winning the World Series.
The beauty of baseball has always been that talent, both individual and team, emerges truthfully over the course of 162 games. But this could be a season of lies — in which a hot streak by a poor team, or a cold streak by a powerhouse, leads to aberrational results. Or in which health, especially an untimely COVID-19 breakout absolutely no one wants to see, could be a great equalizer.
Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs put it best: “2020 will go down as the season in baseball history where the relative talent of the teams was the least important in determining the playoff field and the eventual champion.”
It’s been well-documented that the eventual-champion Nationals were 27-33 after 60 games last year and would have missed the playoffs. For a counterpoint, let’s look at the 2017 Mariners, a mediocre bunch that finished 78-84 (. 481), a distant 23 games behind AL West champion Houston (101 wins, .623). Those forgettable M’s were also well out of wild-card contention.
Ah, but from May 28 to Aug. 3 — a stretch of 60 games — the Mariners went 34-26, a winning percentage of .567. At season’s end, the Twins were the American League’s second wild-card team in 2017 with a .525 winning percentage. The Yankees were the first wild-card team with a .562 winning percentage.
The lesson: So-so teams — in fact, even bad teams — can muster up a two-month stretch of respectability. It would be proven to be a mirage, a hoax, in a six-month season. But in 2020, it could carry the day.
So there you have it, your morsel of hope for a Mariners season that, by all indications, will be far more about development than contention.
You’ve got to dream on opening day, right? In this most abnormal of seasons, what could be more normal than that?