This was never going to be a normal MLB season, so it’s no surprise that its opening salvo—a doubleheader with the Nationals hosting the Yankees and the Dodgers hosting the Giants—was strange. With hand sanitizer pumps visible in the dugouts and the stands alternately barren and filled with cardboard cutouts of fans, these were no typical season openers.
There’s plenty to revel in with the return of baseball. But the opening games were also reminders of the realities of this season, with play resuming even as the pandemic continues to spread across the country. All four teams that took the field Thursday have been affected by COVID-19, with notable players—including David Price and Buster Posey—opting out of the season entirely, and others, including DJ LeMahieu, sidelined for the night after testing positive. On Thursday, Juan Soto, the Nationals star outfielder, received positive test results, raising still more questions about how this season will work and the extent to which those involved can be kept safe. For as much as the resumption of a major American sport is cause for excitement, it’s hard to contend with the fact that players wearing face masks and fans being absent aren’t strange 2020 quirks—they’re signs of the virus. This is something we cannot, and must not, forget.
Still, there was plenty to take away from MLB’s first 18—er, 14 and change—innings of games that count in nearly nine months. Mookie Betts was in Dodger blue! Gerrit Cole shaved his face! Max Scherzer was still mad as all hell about giving up runs! The Giants used their 14th Opening Day left fielder in as many years! Let’s talk about the happenings of Opening Night 2020—the good, the bad, and the ginger.
Juan Soto Tests Positive for COVID-19
Hours before the reigning World Series champion Nationals were set to start their 2020 campaign, news broke that Soto—the 21-year-old dynamo whose playoff heroics helped bring home a championship—had tested positive for COVID-19. The team said that Soto is asymptomatic and that his exposure to teammates in recent days was apparently minimal.
Mike Rizzo says Juan is asymptomatic right now. Rizzo says he was tested two days ago and the results were received early this morning. Rizzo says no one else is inactive after contact tracing.— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) July 23, 2020
All the same, Soto testing positive for the coronavirus just hours before he was supposed to play was a reminder of the stakes of this season. For those of us who love baseball—and those of us who cover it professionally—it’s both a delight and a relief to see the sport return at last. But MLB’s return comes just as the U.S. topped 4 million reported COVID-19 cases, a staggering number with a devastating human toll. Players, coaches, staff, media, and all of the others who reported to Nationals Park and Dodger Stadium on Thursday did so even as a very real danger loomed. That the game in D.C. proceeded with something less than certainty about possible exposure—the Yankees did not receive additional testing after Soto’s result was made public—raises difficult questions about what MLB is willing to do to prioritize the safety of those who make the games happen. Perhaps the league truly believed it had addressed all possible risks following Soto’s diagnosis. Then again, New York catcher Gary Sánchez told reporters afterward, “I wanted to keep my distance from the other hitters.”
Hopefully Soto will recover to full health without complications and return to the team soon. He won’t be the last player to get COVID-19 this season, though, nor the last to bring attention to the decisions that Major League Baseball has to make.
Dr. Fauci Is, Er, a Little Outside
Should Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a preeminent guiding light for many Americans during the pandemic (not to mention a noted Nationals fan), focus on science? Certainly. Should he also have attempted the first pitch of the 2020 baseball season from the mound? Well.
Take Me (a Terrifying Cardboard Cutout) Out to the Ballgame, Take Me Out to the Crowd (of Terrifying Cardboard Cutouts)
On Thursday, the Nationals and Yankees opened the season in a ballpark with stands that were totally empty. Even with piped-in crowd noise, the stadium seemed strange and disconcerting.
The Dodgers and Giants, on the other hand, played in front of a crowd of fake fans. L.A. allowed people to submit images of themselves and family members to be fashioned into life-size cardboard cutouts. It was very weird! It also, maybe, kind of worked, in that the cutouts were something to look at that were slightly less bizarre than a sea of stuffed animals.
It could be stranger still. Behold the spread currently Chez White Sox:
White Sox fan Paul Garrett bought 100 cardboard cutouts of himself! He’ll be cheering on the White Sox near the visitors dugout. pic.twitter.com/hj8TJbyhpP— Chuck Garfien (@ChuckGarfien) July 22, 2020
The Big Baseball Boys Are Back
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are many things. They are both Yankees outfielders. They are both very large. And they both have a tendency to smack the absolute stuffing out of baseballs.
Both also have been dogged by injuries: Judge was diagnosed with a fractured right rib this spring, and Stanton played just 18 games last season after dealing with a cascade of bicep, shoulder, and knee injuries. So it was a delight to see the 2017 NL MVP—who incidentally was the first DH in an NL-hosted game—healthy at last, and doing what we’ve long waited to see: He crushed a towering homer as part of a three-RBI night. Judge, for his part, laced the first base hit of the 2020 season. The pair seem awfully likely to combine for a whole lot more production.
Mookie Betts Debuts in His New Home
This week, Betts—who earlier this year seemed like he might never suit up for the team he joined in a February trade—established that he would wear Dodger blue for years to come. Indeed, he’ll almost certainly do so for the rest of his career, having signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with Los Angeles on Wednesday.
On Thursday, we were treated to the sight of MLB’s second-best player in his new professional home. He went 1-for-5 at the plate, and in the seventh inning slid home to give the Dodgers their first lead of the 2020 season.
More notably, Betts was among the players who took a knee to protest racism and systemic injustice during the national anthem before the game. Players on all four teams Thursday kneeled as a pregame video recorded in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was shown; Betts, along with multiple Giants players, remained on one knee throughout the anthem.
ESPN’s Conversation With Rob Manfred Was Weird, Right?
In the midst of the game at Nats Park, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred joined the broadcast and took some questions from ESPN’s commentator duo of Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez. It was a bizarre segment, to put it mildly. A-Rod was deferential, addressing Manfred as “Commissioner Manfred” and praising him for his role in negotiating the shortened 2020 season. Given the months of difficult, fractious, and occasionally worrying negotiations that preceded the return of baseball, it was a strange note to strike—at best obtuse, and at worst far too sympathetic to owners who often seemed to put the bottom line above all else. Considering that A-Rod is reportedly attempting to become an owner himself … hm.
Add to this what seemed to be genuine uncertainty on the part of broadcasters—not to mention the general baseball public—about the structure of the hastily announced expanded playoffs, and it was not exactly a banner day for the sport’s management.
Are You There, Baseball Fans of America? It’s Me, the Horrifying Weather of the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C., is experiencing an unusually ugly stretch of summertime weather, even by its own swampy standards. Earlier this month, the city very nearly broke a record for consecutive days above 90 degrees. On Thursday, two outflow boundaries collided just outside city limits, creating a brand-new nightmare thunderstorm. There was a preposterous amount of lightning and prodigious amounts of rain; the Nationals’ famous Skittles tarp got its first official workout of the season.
Players were sent inside midway through the top of the sixth inning as they waited in the hope that the storm might abate. It did not, and the Yankees won the curtailed affair 4–1; Cole’s Yankees debut officially goes down as a complete game one-hitter. In the end, the rain delay was 16 minutes longer than the actual gameplay, per The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty.
The Dodgers Are World Series Favorites for a Reason
I’m a Giants fan, so please understand how much it pains me to concede this, but on Thursday the Dodgers faced a divisional enemy that maybe, just maybe, won’t be a juggernaut this year. San Francisco is midway through a rebuild, having seen Posey opt out, manager Bruce Bochy retire, ace Madison Bumgarner decamp for the Diamondbacks in the offseason, and top hitters Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria begin the season on IL.
Which is all a long way of saying that the Dodgers were not expected to lose on Thursday. But Dustin May looked shaky starting in place of ace Clayton Kershaw, who was scratched earlier in the day with a sore back. The Giants scored first, putting Pablo Sandoval briefly in a tie with Adam Eaton for the NL lead in RBIs.
The Dodgers finally took a lead in the seventh inning, and then promptly broke things open and reminded everyone of how this team is likely to carry on this season. It’s a fierce lineup: Betts, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and Co. won 8-1, and are championship favorites for a reason.