The long-awaited and unprecedented 2020 Major League Baseball campaign began with a couple marquee matchups, including one of the more local teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The league’s 26 other teams started their seasons Friday, July 24, to round out the Opening Day slate. Here are a few takeaways from the first couple of days of a season unlike any other in baseball history.
Owing to the considerable room for craziness in a 60-game season, the two top teams, as debated on ESPN, are the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees’ lineup wasn’t even at full strength for Thursday’s rain-shortened opener in Washington. DJ LeMahieu, the club’s most valuable player a year ago, remained sidelined with an injury, which opened the door for Murrieta Valley High School alum, Tyler Wade. Wade got on base twice and scored from first on a monster hit by Aaron Judge. With Judge and Giancarlo Stanton both finally healthy at the same time, the Yankees’ offense is going to be a nightmare against opposing pitchers and will excel at scoring runs.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers had to scratch their scheduled starter, ace Clayton Kershaw, hours before their opener due to back spasms, but they still walloped the Giants in an 8-1 win. In Kershaw’s place, the Dodgers handed the ball to Dustin May, an electrifying 22-year-old right-hander who hit triple-digits multiple times. May limited San Francisco to one run over 4 1/3 innings. Most teams can’t turn to their emergency starter on a moment’s notice and have confidence that he will deliver a serviceable outing. The Dodgers are not like most teams though as they didn’t even have a great night offensively against the Giants and they still put up eight runs. The following night, they put up nine runs in another lopsided victory which featured Chaparral High School alum, Rob Brantley, who started at the catcher position for the Giants.
Expect regular disappearances. The Nationals took the field Thursday without their best hitter, Juan Soto, who was rendered unavailable hours before first pitch after testing positive for COVID-19. A day later, the Atlanta Braves unexpectedly started Alex Jackson behind the plate for their season opener because their top two catchers, Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers, recently exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. Six days later, the Miami Marlins have had 18 players and personal test positive, postponing two games thus far, both against the Nationals. At some point this season, all 30 teams will undoubtedly contend with a similar situation, in which a player is unexpectedly indisposed – even if that player’s asymptomatic, like Soto – in accordance with the league’s health-and-safety protocol. And they will all just have to deal with it.
Social justice will be at the forefront. The ongoing global reckoning over racial inequality appears to have resonated throughout baseball, and the league made a notable effort to advance the cause of social justice as its season began. Most every pitcher’s mound was adorned with a “BLM” – Black Lives Matter – stencil on Opening Day, and many players had patches with either the same message or the phrase “United For Change” affixed to their jerseys. Displays of solidarity with the movement unfolded during pregame introductions in virtually every ballpark, too, while multiple teams had players kneel during the playing of the national anthem. Meanwhile, T-shirts reading “Black Lives Matter” seem to be the chosen batting practice uniform throughout the league.
It remains to be seen if these gestures will continue as the season progresses, but it’s a welcome sight to see Major League Baseball, which has had an ugly track record of institutional racism itself, help amplify messages of equality and empathy.
Extra-innings rule shows promise. Fans are free to despise the new extra-innings rule, but its effectiveness was laid bare Friday. The rule – which places a runner on second base to start every inning after the ninth – was implemented to ensure against marathon games in such a compact season, and it worked like a charm in its first big league trial, facilitating a prompt resolution to the Angels-A’s opener, which ended on a Matt Olson walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning.
There were concerns that the rule would lead to an anticlimactic series of sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies, but the Angels, who began extra innings with Shohei Ohtani on second base, didn’t try to move him to third with a sacrifice bunt, and the Athletics weren’t thinking bunt with their leadoff hitter in the bottom of the 10th, either. Ultimately, those in favor of implementing this rule beyond 2020 couldn’t have hoped for a more promising debut.
And finally, as awesome as it is to have baseball back, the game has gotten weird. Managers are wearing masks in the dugout and players continuously whip bottles of hand sanitizer out of their back pockets during breaks in the action. Of course, the empty stadiums make for a discomfiting backdrop. The stadiums with cardboard cutouts filling their seats in lieu of actual fans are perhaps even more unnerving. Moreover, the fake crowd noise being piped through each stadium’s loud speaker system and enhanced on certain broadcasts, is occasionally delayed, with the celebratory roar coming a half-second after the strikeout or the home run. Hopefully, some of these production kinks will be worked out in short order, but so long as baseball is played under the specter of the coronavirus, the game’s going to feel slightly off.
JP Raineri can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.