1. Baseball is back, but its challenges playing through a pandemic are just beginning. The abbreviated 60-game season, regionalized schedule, expanded rosters, and various other rule changes promise to make this season the weirdest in MLB history, and through four days we’re already seeing the impact. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the unique conditions are merely secondary effects of the coronavirus pandemic that necessitated them.
The dominant news story of Thursday’s Opening Day was Nationals outfielder Juan Soto testing positive for COVID-19. A day later, the Braves announced that they would be without their top two catchers because both players were showing coronavirus symptoms. No matter how cautious MLB is, it can’t ignore the dangers of working and traveling during a pandemic. And having an emerging superstar scratched mere hours before the season’s curtain-lifter reinforced that the virus is the sport’s most pressing issue.
Viewers who tuned into the series between the Mets and Braves were reminded that Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman joined the team a few weeks into summer camp because he contracted a severe case of COVID-19 that resulted in a fever of more than 104 degrees and left him praying that he wouldn’t die. Eduardo Rodríguez, the Red Sox’s de facto ace with Chris Sale recovering from Tommy John surgery, is battling a case of COVID-19-induced myocarditis that’s left him unable to throw more than a handful of pitches at a time. Before Saturday’s game, the Diamondbacks held a moment of silence for area scout Johan Maya, a 40-year-old father of three, who died from COVID-19 on Opening Day. And on Sunday, the Marlins took the field without starting pitcher José Ureña and three starting position players, all of whom were under quarantine. The team delayed its planned flight home to Miami out of concern there might be an outbreak; as of Monday, at least 13 players and coaches had tested positive, and the Marlins’ game against the Orioles had been postponed.
We can see the empty stands, the coaches and reserves masked and positioned 6 feet apart, the proliferation of forearm bashes instead of high fives, and the gestures like Anthony Rizzo dispensing hand sanitizer to base runners, and infer that MLB’s health and safety procedures are being taken seriously. But those procedures are based on the premise that it is possible to play competitive team sports safely amid a pandemic, with clubs traveling from city to city, and without the bubble system that seems to be working in the National Women’s Soccer League and MLS. MLB has bet its season on that foundation, and we do not yet know how solid it is.
2. MLB’s nod toward the Black Lives Matter movement shows both progress from 2017 and the limits of the league’s commitment. Before every game on Thursday and Friday, the players from both teams held a gigantic black ribbon and knelt together before the playing of the national anthem, a demonstration that was thought up by Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen. The league also stenciled “BLM” onto the backs of pitcher’s mounds and the sides of the bases, and authorized players to wear uniform patches that read “United for Change” and “Black Lives Matter.” On Friday, the Tampa Bay Rays Twitter account tweeted, “Today is Opening Day, which means it’s a great day to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.” Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman from Louisville, was shot to death in her own home by three police officers in the middle of the night on March 13; two of the three remain on the job, and none of the three have been arrested.
Today is Opening Day, which means it's a great day to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) July 24, 2020
When Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and systemic injustice in 2017, just as Colin Kaepernick’s protests in the NFL were dominating national sports and political discourse, the baseball world gave him a tepid reception. This time around, the league sanctioned demonstrations, and figures such as Mookie Betts, Giancarlo Stanton, and Giants manager Gabe Kapler were among those who protested during the anthem. Stanton told reporters about the impact of growing up near the site where Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police in 1992, while Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright framed the fight against racism as a fundamental humanitarian imperative. Last month, Clayton Kershaw marked the anniversary of the abolition of slavery by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and pointing out that silence is tantamount to complicity.
It’s hard not to notice and appreciate how much attitudes have changed since 2017, even in individual cases. Betts and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said they once perceived kneeling during the anthem as an insult to the military; both said they’d changed their views after learning more. And while Kapler was the only manager to kneel, even managers who stopped short of endorsing demonstrations against systemic racism affirmed their support of players’ right to protest.
“[T]he beauty of our country is the freedom of choice,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said after six of Seattle’s players raised their fists during the national anthem on Friday. “We have to respect people in whatever they do. I want all of our guys to know that I support them in whatever they choose to do. The more we talk and learn from each other, that’s how you really induce change.”
But the league- and team-sponsored gestures appear to have their limits. If kneeling before the national anthem in a display of unity sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what the NFL tried in 2017 in an attempt to prevent players from kneeling during it. And while the Premier League managed to print the entire phrase “Black Lives Matter” on a jersey patch, MLB only printed the acronym, along with the league logo, on the back of the mound. That drew attention to the fact that “BLM” is “MLB” in reverse—making the decision either a coincidence or a cynical marketing move.
MLB’s sponsored statements and photo ops, well-intentioned though they may be, represent the limits of where the league—and most of its players, sponsors, and fans—are comfortable going at this moment. Dismantling the racist structures built into our society is going to require a lot of discomfort, in terms of statements, actions, and self-reflection. And it will require a longer commitment than just Opening Day, or until teams have other uses for the advertising space.
3. Raise your hand if you’re healthy enough to pitch, but not so quickly that you hurt yourself. Pitching is a physically strenuous business under the best of circumstances, and after having their routines interrupted by nearly three months of inactivity, many of baseball’s best starters are already on the injured list.
Reigning AL Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander picked up where he left off in 2019, allowing just two runs (both on solo home runs) over six innings en route to an Opening Day victory against the Mariners. Two days later, though, a report surfaced that he would miss the rest of the regular season with an elbow injury. Verlander denied the report, saying that he has a forearm strain and that he hopes to return to action after getting some rest. Yet it’s worth noting that forearm strains tend to be a warning sign for serious elbow injuries.
Verlander will have company on the IL. The Dodgers scratched Kershaw from his Opening Day start with a back injury, leaving this Wednesday’s much-anticipated Kershaw-Verlander showdown as a matchup between Dustin May and TBD. Marcus Stroman is still on the mend after suffering a calf injury two weeks ago, and A’s wunderkind A.J. Puk will get a late start to the season after injuring his throwing shoulder. On Friday, Stephen Strasburg bowed out of his start unexpectedly with a nerve impingement in his wrist. Strasburg told reporters, “This season is kind of a mess to begin with. I’ve got to think about the big picture.” Then, on Sunday, Corey Kluber left his first start for the Rangers with tightness in his throwing shoulder.
And those are just some of the recent injuries: Sale, Noah Syndergaard, and Luis Severino are among the recent Cy Young contenders who are out for the season after having Tommy John surgery.
It’s become routine for big-name pitchers to miss a handful of starts each year due to nagging injuries, but with only 60 games on the schedule, a handful of starts could end up being half the season. And these pitchers are foundational parts of playoff contenders. A big reason the Astros could feel comfortable heading into 2020 without Gerrit Cole was because of the security that Verlander provided them. With a healthy Kluber, the Rangers would be in a good position to take advantage of any Verlander-related slipups from Houston. Without him? Well, without Kluber last year the Rangers missed the playoffs by 18 games.
It’s tempting to call many of these injuries minor, but with so few games in this season, there might not be a minor injury to a starting pitcher.
4. The Blue Jays finally have found their 2020 home. There’s no better metaphor for the chaos inherent to this MLB schedule than the Blue Jays not knowing where they’d play their home games until after the season started. (Except maybe the league changing its playoff format on Opening Day. In these trying times, ominous metaphors practically grow on trees.) After the Canadian government refused to bend its international travel laws for the Blue Jays and their opponents, the Jays sought to play their home games in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. The Pennsylvania state government similarly refused to grant permission on safety grounds.
Rumors began to circulate that the Blue Jays might alight in Omaha and play at TD Ameritrade Park, the 24,000-seat venue that hosts the College World Series. Or that in a worst-case scenario they could play the entire season on the road, like Philip Roth’s Ruppert Mundys. But before the nickname “Jaygabonds” could stick, the Blue Jays announced that they would move into Sahlen Field in Buffalo, home to their Triple-A affiliate.
But even this solution—an obvious endpoint from the moment Toronto stopped being a viable option—will require the Blue Jays to play two scheduled home series on the road. Sahlen Field, the biggest stadium at the Triple-A level, was built with an eye toward expanding to attract a relocating MLB franchise, but the 32-year-old facility needs upgrades to reach the MLB standard. The Blue Jays can’t move in until August 11, which means five scheduled home games against the Phillies and Nationals will now be played on the road.
5. Shohei Ohtani had quite a weekend. One of MLB’s smorgasbord of weird changes is an initiative to cut down on long extra-inning games. As such, the league has adapted a rule from the minors and international play: From the 10th inning on, each half inning starts with a runner on second base. By rule, the runner on second is the person who made the last out of the previous inning.
This came as a surprise to Ohtani on Friday, when the A’s-Angels game that ended the night became the first of the season to go into extra innings.
Ohtani’s reaction when reminded he’s starting the inning on second base pic.twitter.com/LUarOXmqUa— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) July 25, 2020
Ohtani had to scramble to shed his pullover and grab a helmet before the Angels’ other two-way player, Jared Walsh, led off the top of the 10th, and was promptly thrown out trying to advance to third on a ground ball. In the bottom half of the inning, Oakland’s Matt Olson—who made a spectacular play to cut Ohtani down—ended the game with a walk-off grand slam.
One of the drawbacks of this rule is that by putting the go-ahead run on second with nobody out, the format invites a sacrifice bunt to start the inning, possibly followed by a series of intentional walks to set up a force play. And while Royals manager Mike Matheny successfully implemented this strategy on Saturday for his first win with his new club, for the most part it seems like managers are playing the scenario straight up and letting their hitters swing away. That resulted not only in Olson’s walk-off dinger, but also in an exciting back-and-forth between the Braves and Mets on Saturday. Here’s hoping that remains standard practice.
Ohtani’s strange weekend continued on Sunday when he made his first start since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018, and the command problems that plagued him during summer camp have not gone away. Ohtani faced six batters and threw 30 pitches, topping out at just 93 miles per hour and not throwing his signature split-finger fastball even once. All six men reached base, three on walks and three on singles, with five of them ultimately coming around to score. It was hardly an ideal start for someone who’s supposed to be the Angels’ ace.
6. 2020 is the year of cool shoes. Bryce Harper, lover of flashy cleats and the Phillie Phanatic, broke new sartorial ground on Friday by combining those interests. Harper has worn Phanatic-themed footwear in the past—he also arrived at Citizens Bank Park on Opening Day in a Phanatic-themed suit liner and wore a Phanatic headband under his batting helmet—but Friday’s shoes were his boldest statement yet.
Harper’s cleats, designed by Leah Miller, featured rhinestones and fake fur—certainly out of the ordinary for a sport with clothing that typically aims to be “moisture-wicking.” Phillies announcer Tom McCarthy said they looked like something Elton John might have worn, which is not just shorthand for flamboyance. They literally look like something Elton John might have worn.
You can take the kid out of California, but you can’t take the California out of the kid. pic.twitter.com/3Er3vtoB9Q— Cut4 (@Cut4) July 26, 2020
Over in Cincinnati, Reds right-hander Michael Lorenzen was just as creative, if less colorful, when he took the mound in a pair of Vans high-tops. For as much as Harper’s shoes pandered to Phillies fans, Lorenzen is carving out a cult following of anyone who’s ever owned a New Found Glory album.
7. Ji-Man Choi is a switch hitter now. Choi, the Rays first baseman, is known for his flexibility, discerning batting eye, and extreme platoon split; the left-handed hitter came into Sunday’s game slashing just .185/.288/.296 against lefties. He had dabbled with switch hitting in spring training, but had never batted righty in a game, despite having more than 800 career plate appearances in the bigs.
That made it all the more surprising, then, when in the third inning Choi turned around to face Jays reliever Anthony Kay from the right side and struck out. But three innings later, he squared Kay up and hit a 110 mph rocket out to left-center field.
There’s a Choi Boi in all of us pic.twitter.com/nx0NNPQoEx— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) July 26, 2020
In doing so, Choi became the first Korean-born big leaguer to hit home runs from both sides of the plate. Given the ease with which he took Kay deep, he has to be kicking himself for not trying this years ago.
8. Yoenis Céspedes and Daniel Bard are back. Céspedes homered on May 13, 2018, missed 57 games due to injury, came back to go 2-for-5 with a home run on July 20, and then sat out almost two full seasons with foot and ankle ailments. He returned to the Mets’ lineup Friday as the first home DH in Citi Field history, and kept his streak going with a seventh-inning blast off Chris Martin that produced the game’s only run.
Yoenis Céspedes' first home run since July 20, 2018. And it was a monster.pic.twitter.com/LVhDHYcgTq— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) July 24, 2020
That absence, however, is nothing compared to that of Rockies reliever Daniel Bard. About 10 years ago, Bard was a nearly unhittable reliever for the Red Sox. In 2012, Boston attempted to move Bard to the rotation; Bard didn’t take well to the change, ultimately dropping to the minors, dealing with a bout with thoracic outlet syndrome, and all but falling out of baseball entirely. From 2014 to 2017, he threw just 13 total innings in the minors before sitting out the 2018 and 2019 seasons. But Bard, now 35, showed up in Rockies camp this spring looking like his old self, and was a surprise addition to Colorado’s 40-man roster during summer camp.
On Friday, Bard returned to major league action throwing 99 miles an hour, and picked up his first win in almost eight years as a result. It capped off one of the most remarkable comeback acts in years.
9. This is the season of parity. Last year, for the first time in MLB history, four teams lost at least 100 games. But on the first weekend of the 2020 season, three of those four—the Tigers, Marlins, and Orioles—won their respective opening series. And despite a couple of lopsided-looking matchups (Dodgers-Giants, Astros-Mariners), not a single one of the 15 series played this weekend ended in a sweep. That means no team is more than one game out of first place or last place, and for the first time since 1953, no team started 3-0 or 0-3.
MLB is doing away with one-game tiebreakers this season to avoid unnecessary travel, but there is no codified plan for what will happen if the season ends in a 30-way tie. The league might want to come up with one, because that looks like where we’re heading.
This piece was updated at 12:42 p.m. ET on July 27 with additional information after publication.