Picture it: Fenway Park, Oct. 2, 1978. The Yankees trail the Red Sox, 2-0, in the top of the seventh, with men on first and second and two outs. Bucky Dent, facing ex-teammate Mike Torrez, fouls a ball off his foot and hobbles toward the direction of the visiting dugout.
Mickey Rivers: “Bucky, your bat is cracked! Here, use mine!”
Dent: “Sorry, Mick. That wouldn’t be honoring best practices.”
(Dent strikes out and the Yankees lose.)
We are looking at one weird 2020 baseball season, if we’re fortunate enough to get a season at all. It’d be a wonderful weird. A greatly appreciated weird. Weird nonetheless.
On Friday night, Major League Baseball sent its 67-page “2020 Operations Manual” to the Players Association, and let’s lead with the observation that this reads like a serious, thoughtful proposal for how to conduct a team sport during a pandemic. If necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation could be the father. We know how desperate the big league owners are to cobble together a season, and their steward Rob Manfred honored that urgency with this initial proposal.
In addition to oodles of safety/health protocols that cover both testing and travel, the document features a dizzying array of adjustments to life at the ballpark and on the field, from social distancing in the dugout (and using those unoccupied crowd seats to house some of the uniformed personnel who aren’t in the game) to a ban on spitting to infielders being instructed to this doozy: “When the ball is out of play or in between pitches, fielders are encouraged to retreat several steps away from the baserunner.” Think of how counterintuitive that will be for infielders who have spent a decade or two playing the game a certain way.
Of course, we’ve all spent these past couple of months going against so much that we’ve learned, and without a coronavirus vaccine available, it’s either this sanitized version of the national pastime or no version at all. If the players and owners find common ground on the economics and the players find peace with putting themselves in harm’s way, neither a guarantee — nor government officials blessing this endeavor — we’ll take what we can get.
Much like we would treat an 82-game season as legitimate because of the circumstances that compelled it, it would be silly to scoff at baseball compromised by regulations to keep anyone from getting sick or dying. Really, the only scoffing to be done would be to question whether baseball should be putting itself out there at all given the legitimate potential of something going horribly awry.
We can hold that debate another day, though. If they’re going to give this a shot, they can’t do so cavalierly, and the weirdness — not even out-of-town scores on the scoreboard, to limit people at the stadium! — equates diligence.
The tweaks might change baseball history since the game is, as we know, is a game of inches. Better to have some baseball history, though, however weird, than none at all.
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