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Baseball Shouts 'Play Ball!' But For How Long? A Nervous 2020 Season Begins

The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals will take on the New York Yankees Thursday in the first game of a delayed and shortened regular season on Thursday at Nationals Park.
Scott Taetsch
Getty Images
The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals will take on the New York Yankees Thursday in the first game of a delayed and shortened regular season on Thursday at Nationals Park.

The run-don't-walk Major League Baseball season begins Thursday night.

Normally it's a 162-game stroll. But the Washington Nationals vs New York Yankees opener, in D.C., represents the beginning of a 60-game sprint through a pandemic shortened schedule.

After the Nats play the Yanks, in a game that'll feature Dr. Anthony Fauci throwing out the first pitch and keep alive President Trump's streak of not, the Los Angeles Dodgers host the San Francisco Giants later Thursday night.

Friday, the season begins in earnest with MLB's 26 other teams starting their sprints.

Hope is a tradition embraced by all at the start of any season. But this year, as with everything now, there's a good deal of anxiety mixed in.

Can baseball finish its sprint without pulling a metaphorical hamstring?

But really, who needs metaphors right now? Can baseball avoid a COVID-19 outbreak...and shutdown?

There have been hopeful signs.

The most recent coronavirus results, released last Friday by MLB, showed six positives....five players, one staff member...out of 10,548 samples tested.

Of course that's while teams have been stationary, at summer camps in their home cities. Now the threat increases with travel. It'll be limited, but players and other team personnel going from one city to the next will increase the risk of transmission. All it takes is one visit with relatives; a late night visit to a bar; and a house of cards could collapse.

And right now, the Toronto Blue Jays are exhibit A for the potential problems of moving around.

On Wednesday, the Blue Jays officially became this season's first homeless team.

The Canadian government decided over the weekend Toronto couldn't play in that city because of the travel it would require to and from the U.S., which, you might've heard, is having a bit of a problem containing the virus. The Jays arranged to play "home games" in Pittsburgh, but Wednesday, Pennsylvania health officials nixed that.

"In recent weeks, we have seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Pennsylvania," Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement.

"To add travelers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams. We know that this virus does not discriminate, and can even make professional athletes very sick. We are committed to protecting the health and well-being of all Pennsylvanians."

So will the team become the barnstormin' Blue Jays, playing games on the road all season long?

"Everybody would love to have a home game, but that might not be an option," Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo told the Associated Press. "I've never gone through this, not with two days to go [before the season opener in Tampa Bay], not knowing where you're going to play home games."

'I've never gone through this' is as good a slogan as any for Major League Baseball 2020.

When the games take the focus off the pandemic, for awhile at least, they'll be dramatically different. Which actually will remind everyone about the pandemic.

No fans in the stands. No spitting. Personal, water-soaked rags for pitchers to use instead of licking their fingers to grip the ball. A designated hitter batting for the pitcher in National League games too – since the DH was created in 1973, it's only been used in the American League. And games that go beyond the ninth, into extra-innings, the team at bat will start with a runner on second base. Yes, it seems a bit Little League-ish...but it's meant to prevent marathon games leaving players exhausted as they try to play a cramped and speedy schedule.

What will look the same?

The favorites. The defending champion Nationals. The Yankees. The Houston Astros....remember those guys banging on garbage cans?....the Dodgers.

Among others.

And don't count out others, either.

Because in this strangest of seasons, hope really is a thing, maybe more than ever.

Consider the team coming out of nowhere and getting on a hot streak.

In past years, that hot streak might be cooled by a late swoon.

But in a sprint, a streak matters. In a sprint, doing anything early can pay off nicely.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.