Once you get past the resentment, once you allow your inner baseball fan to have a look around, breathe a little bit, and once you accept that there is nothing perfect about baseball’s coming 60-game sprint (including how many of those games might actually be played unless someone signs a CBA with COVID-19) …
Well, it has the chance to be the craziest, the zaniest, and among the most fascinating seasons we’ve ever seen. It probably isn’t something we’d sign up for every year — baseball is supposed to be savored over the long haul, the grind every bit as essential as the beautiful mini-chapters that comprise The Long Season — but for right now?
This could fun. On a lot of different levels.
1. The Short Season
In short: Every game matters. Every. Single. Game.
Two pennant races stand alone because there were so many pennant possibilities as time ran out on September. The American League was a five-team race for about 140 games in 1967; by the season’s final week the Angels had fallen back but the Tigers, Twins, White Sox and Red Sox were all within two games of each other. Boston prevailed on the last day of the season, when it was still possible for a three-team playoff.
Six years later, with a week left in the season, there were five NL East teams — the Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Expos and Cubs — within 2 ½ games of each other, and the league was actually commissioning mathematicians to figure out what a five-team playoff might look like.
Those were both kooky aberrations, and even the addition of wild cards hasn’t invited that much late-season chaos. Now? Over 60 games, there is zero room for error — especially since the imposed schedule kept the number of postseason teams at 10, instead of 16. Every losing streak could be a bridge to oblivion. Every injury — or positive test — could have fateful ramifications.
You surely know by now that the defending-champ Nationals were 27-33 after 60 games last year. Just as significant: There was a 60-game stretch from mid-May through mid-July when the woeful, 105-loss Marlins went 28-32; that wouldn’t be postseason-worthy, but that could surely break a lot of hearts in D.C., Philly, New York and Atlanta.
This is baseball crossed with football in 2020. Every game matters. And on any given Thursday …
2. Dreaming of .400
Almost all of the significant records will be safe during this outlier of a season since they are almost all based on volume — home runs, pitching wins, hits. Maybe a Jacob deGrom or a Gerrit Cole could make a run at Bob Gibson’s 1968 record of a 1.12 ERA for their 11-12 starts, but that’s not exactly one of baseball’s magic numbers.
But .400 is. And we have seen across the last 79 years just how difficult going 2-for-5 every day is. And it’s not all that easy to maintain over 60 games, either. But from May 17-July 28, 2017, Jose Altuve hit .414 — and you can only imagine the level of hand-wringing if that guy winds up joining Ted Williams and crew. In 2000, both Nomar Garciaparra (.415) and Todd Helton (.401) went .400 for 60 games. In 2004, from June 29 through Sept. 4, Ichiro Suzuki hit — sit down for this — .453 across 60 games.
3. The Universal DH
Well, it’s best to get used to this one, because it was coming anyway, and we’ve been inching in this direction ever since Jan. 11, 1973, when the AL voted it into law. You would think the Mets have the most to gain from this, especially if Yoenis Cespedes has been spending the last three months wisely, but it could also be a useful slot for Robinson Cano.
4. The Elephant on the Basepaths
Results of my thoroughly unscientific poll on this is that 98.3 percent of all baseball fans detest, abhor and altogether despise the extra-inning, start-with-a-man-on-second rule, and fear that once it’s in it’ll be impossible to get it out. That includes me, though I’ll wait for another day and another column to aim 800 words of vitriol to that.
But you have to admit this much: The first time you see it, you’ll be fascinated by how it works. Unless your team loses. In which case it’ll be the worst baseball idea since androstenedione.
5. The Schedule
Sigh. In a fundamentally imperfect season, baseball had the chance to at least make its schedule perfect: 40 games against division foes, 10 apiece; 20 games against regional teams from the other league, four apiece. But no: Instead they will force six games against “regional rivals.” That was a favor proffered the likes of SNY and YES, but no favor to the teams they cover: The Mets and Yankees play extra games against each other while the Nats get the Orioles for six and the Rays, presumably the Yanks’ chief rival, get the Marlins for six. Imbalanced and imperfect.
Actually, that would make a perfect slogan for the whole 2020 season, if you think about it.