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Baseball in 2020: Let’s get weird

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If we’re going to see the Cardinals (or any pro sports) in 2020, it’s going to be weird. I say, let’s embrace it.

Taiwan’s Rakuten Monkeys pose with the robot fans who will populate their otherwise empty stadium.
CPBLstats.com

The big news yesterday were the preliminary reports that MLB and the Player’s Association were exploring a way to open the season in May in Arizona. The teams would play at Chase Field and the various minor league parks around Phoenix, while living sequestered in hotels around the city - kind of like the O.J. jury.

There’s even more weirdness in the fine print of Jeff Passan’s article: Electronic strike zone to keep the umpire at a distance, no mound visits, 7-inning doubleheaders, players sitting in the empty bleachers instead of the dugout. It even mentions having the players on-field mic’d up, presumably because 1) it was such a hit this Spring and 2) as we learned from Wrestlemania, sports with no crowd noise is unnerving.

For a sport that, perhaps more than any other, prides itself on continuity and tradition, that’s a TREMENDOUS amount of weird to introduce in a single season. As for the reaction to the plan, Andy McCullough at The Athletic did a pretty good job of summing it up:

The plan, depending on your perspective, is either a ray of light during a moment of national disillusion or a dystopian experiment with harrowing downsides.

To me, this plan is BOTH a ray of light and a dystopian experiment. But, assuming the due diligence of MLB, the Player’s Association and public health officials (all of whom are involved) can mitigate the most harrowing downsides...

Let’s get weird.

I think the reality is we will either have Weird Baseball or No Baseball this season. The coming months are very uncertain, but every expert I read suggests that even when mass sheltering-in-place eases, we should expect limitations on public gatherings and intermittent quarantine periods to last for at least the next year.

That means anything resembling a normal season, with teams criss-crossing the country to play in stadiums full of fans, is very unlikely. And the owners must have reached the same conclusion, because if they believed they could wait until July 1 (or whenever) and then hold some semblance of a “regular” regular season where they reaped the huge gate receipts - they would.

Throughout Asia, where most countries are a few weeks ahead of the curve on the US, Baseball leagues are experimenting with ways to play games in empty stadiums. In Taiwan, they are even installing robot mannequins in the stands to simulate actual fans. If you’re going to have Weird Baseball, why not steer into he weird?

The UFC is on the verge of securing a private island where they can fly fighters from around the world and hold competitions. How’s that for a dystopian experiment? We’re here debating the ethics of living in a hotel in Phoenix while Dana White is going full Most Dangerous Game.

It’s weird baseball or no baseball in 2020. No baseball is pretty likely and, it’s important to say: That’s okay too. If that’s what public health officials and the workers from the players down to the hotel staff deem to be the most prudent option, there should be no baseball.

But where to draw the lines in terms of risk is an open question, and will be an even grayer area as society reopens in some capacity. The lowest-risk option is for all of us to stay in our homes for 12-18 months until there is a vaccine to protect against Covid-19. Some may choose that option and, for them, right on.

Most of us - not just ballplayers and umpires and hotel workers and grounds crew staff - will move into some kind of in-between where we are still restricted and social distancing, but no longer on full quarantine. An office may re-open but only ask 50% of the workforce to come in each day. Retail and other “non-essential” businesses may reopen with newly enforced social distancing guidelines. We’re all gonna wear masks.

This will be Weird Life for all of us. And yes, there are some special obstacles these players would face, like the brutal Arizona heat and the time away from their families. I’m not too worried about that. For one thing, the players have a robust union to speak for their interests. But also - and I cannot emphasize this enough - baseball players are maniacs who want more than anything else, to play baseball.

In McCullough’s reporting and elsewhere, players certainly raise concerns, but many are eager to play baseball (and get paid) under whatever circumstances they can. On a great ESPN Daily podcast yesterday, Mina Kimes spoke to former MLB pitcher Dan Straily, who is eagerly preparing to play in Korea - where he would have spent the season away from his family, Covid-19 or not.

In Korea, Japan and Taiwan, baseball leagues are already moving toward reopening in some modified way, despite setbacks. The KBO was originally going to open their season March 28, but that was pushed back, in part due to an increase in infections in Korea after a long decline. But as of right now, teams are playing intrasquad games, with exhibition games slated for later this month and then the start of the season.

Maybe those leagues will never get off the ground. The obstacles to what they are trying to do or to the “Arizona Plan” are tremendous. But it’s absolutely worth a try.

And setting aside all the caveats, can we just step back for a moment in awe of how amazing this would be to watch?

I’ve seen some folks say they wouldn’t watch because this is “not baseball.” Look, I enjoy the tradition and familiarity of baseball myself, but I also watch in hopes of seeing something I have never seen before. And this would most certainly be that.

If you were clutching your pearls over the Nike logo on the jerseys, I can’t imagine your reaction when you see a Robot umpire calling strikes while Javy Baez sings Uptown Funk and John Brebbia watches on from his seat in the Family Pavilion at the Angels Spring Training Complex.

This will be an Asterisk season, if it’s a season at all. If it’s possible and reasonably safe, I’ll 100% take an Asterisk season.

A season played under these conditions would be something that none of us have ever seen before. We would remember it forever. Most all of these quirks would go away, but some would surely stay. (I’m looking at you, Robot Umpire.) And we would certainly learn things about the game we love that we can’t even imagine.

I’m learning things about my neighbors and my local restaurants and my community in general I could have never imagined. Some of it is really bad, but in many cases, I’m inspired by the way everything and everyone keeps moving forward. I look forward to the day when it all “goes back to normal,” but for now I’m fascinated to see how we all persevere while we live in a bubble.

Baseball is no different.