If baseball is played this year, we can expect a season that deviates from the ordinary.
The calendar will soon flip to May and there is still no sign of Major League Baseball receiving the go-ahead for a 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s tough to imagine an opening day before late July or August, let alone playing games with fans packing stadiums.
So things will look and feel different if baseball returns this year, beginning with one of MLB’s proposed plans to play all games in bubble destinations like Arizona and Florida. Despite the uncomfortable reaction that plan may cause — which includes all 30 teams being restricted to competing in their respective Grapefruit or Cactus Leagues and decades-old rivalries being expunged for a moment — experimenting with the 2020 season should not end there.
Implementing a pitch clock, seven-inning doubleheaders, placing a runner on second base if the game goes to extra innings: These are all potential ideas that could be tested in an abbreviated season. If some of those approaches sit well with fans and players alike, there’s no reason not to implement them in subsequent years.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has for years tried to make the sport more attractive to a younger and larger audience. There’s always pushback when baseball’s conservative framework is urged to take a more modern approach. (It doesn’t help when that same commissioner mishandles an illegal sign-stealing scandal and accountability is nowhere to be found.) But, in a world of declining attendance and low ratings, his openness to modifying the sport is coming from the right place.
During a time when routines are obsolete and normalcy is begging for a reinvention, MLB should pounce on the opportunity to introduce new rules and surprising strategies. Every idea might not stick, but there’s no harm in testing concepts in an already unconventional year.
Tournament or bracket-style baseball? Bring it on. Universal DH? Sorry pitchers, but unless you’re raking from the nine-hole, you can sit this one out.
The 2020 season could certainly go a lot longer than it ever has before. However many games it takes to justify a champion could mean playing into late October or early November. Maybe too much time has already passed to validate a winner. It may not be legitimate to those who feel playing anything less than 162 games goes against the integrity of the sport. But this is a different year with unique circumstances and hopefully, the likes of which we don’t see again.
At the same time, MLB has to be careful with its desire to squeeze in as many games as possible. If that results in the season trickling into late November or December, it would be a very quick turnaround before spring training in 2021. Pitchers and catchers report to spring camp in early February, on the heels of what is usually their rest period. A few months of downtime to prevent injuries is key.
Baseball fans continue to yearn for a sense of normalcy and games being broadcasted on their TVs would certainly help some. Those games being played in an entirely new format is less than ideal, especially to purists, but if public health steadies to a level where sports can resurrect, then an atypical season creates a rare opportunity for MLB to have fun and experiment.
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