Unprecedented. Unique. Unsafe, perhaps.
“Obviously the sense of urgency is different,” longtime manager Buck Showalter said of the 60-game season Major League Baseball hopes to hold. “Everybody had a month last year where they thought they were going to shock the world. Then you get the finality of the last month.”
It’ll be a sprint to the finish line, a stark contrast to the standard 162-game marathon — that extended, everyday relationship that allows baseball to consider itself the national pastime. If it doesn’t match the drama or expediency of the 31-game steamroll with which Showalter’s 1995 Yankees closed the regular season, going 25-6 to wipe out a 4 ½-game deficit in the American League wild-card race, it will be compelling and dramatic in a way that the prototypical campaign simply can’t offer by virtue of its length.
As you probably have been reminded by now, the reigning World Series champions wouldn’t have qualified for the 2019 playoffs after 60 games, the Nationals’ 27-33 record placing them six games out of the party. So though you might survive a stumble out of the gate — the 2019 Yankees owned a 6-9 record after 15 games, yet paced the AL East at 38-22 after 60 games — if you can’t get your act together within a month of this expectorate-free competition, you’ll likely find yourselves spit out of luck. Last year, just one club with a losing record after 30 games climbed into a playoff spot after 60, as the Rangers rose from 14-16 to 32-28.
Therefore, teams need not turn things up to 11 as soon as Opening Day, especially since the shortened “summer training” probably won’t condition the pitchers as fully as would a six-week camp. Throw in the rosters starting at 30 players, and the managers who keep the operation afloat in Month 1 and groom their top talents for a Month 2 surge might thrive.
“The health of your pitchers is going to be paramount,” Showalter said. “Teams that keep their pitchers healthy are going to be way ahead of the curve.”
Another point of curiosity: the mental readiness of the players, not only because they just engaged in a public battle with their employers over the amount of their compensation but also because the foundation of that battle — the lack of fans in the stands — could impact their energy level.
“That novelty [of empty ballparks] is going to wear off after about five games,” said Showalter, whose Orioles played without fans once in 2015, following social unrest in Baltimore. “You do need some verification of why you do what you do: ‘If it’s important to the fans, it better be important to us.’ ”
The veteran skipper added, “The makeup of players will be more important than ever. … Someone with a look-at-me mentality after a home run, they’re not going to have anybody responding to it. … Teams that depend on emotion every night, it’s not going to play.”
One precedent for this season does exist — and that, too, featured a break in the action and labor discord. In 1981, following a player strike that lasted nearly two months, MLB resumed with a “second half,” resetting every club at 0-0 to give them motivation for a 53-game race to a playoff spot. The second-half champion played the team that led the division when the strike hit to open the playoffs.
Alas, when I reached out to Tim Raines, whose Expos won the National League East’s second half, the eternally cheery Hall of Fielder didn’t play ball on my concept.
“I think what it was for us was, a lot of guys were happy to be playing again,” said Raines, who lives in the COVID-heavy Arizona. “There’s a difference in this situation with the pandemic going on.”
He’s right. There are different types of urgency. The most significant part of prevailing in this sprint, after all, might be avoiding a coronavirus outbreak on your team. If it’s not the way we’re used to handicapping a race, it’s the unique hand we have been dealt.