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PERSPECTIVE

The baseball season starts Thursday. How it ends is anyone's guess.

Nationals Park in Washington, where the Nationals will face the New York Yankees on Thursday.

KATHERINE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

By DAVE SHEININ | The Washington Post | Published: July 22, 2020

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If you had to define the essence of baseball in a sentence, you might say it is a sport of complexity and nuance that revolves around the pitcher-versus-batter matchup, grounded in the timeless precision of its dimensions – 90 feet between the bases, 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher's rubber to the plate – and constructed around a near-daily schedule that values durability, resilience and mental sharpness.

With a new regular season set to begin Thursday night at Nationals Park, all of those sacred, core elements remain in place. Max Scherzer of the World Series-champion Washington Nationals will throw the first pitch of the season against the New York Yankees at 7:08 p.m., in what will be the first meaningful baseball game since Game 7 of the World Series nearly nine months ago (which was also started by Scherzer).

But in almost every other measurable way, and many immeasurable ones, Major League Baseball in 2020 will be a sport transformed – bent, twisted, compacted and stripped of much of its ancient, sensory charm.

This year, baseball's traditional existence as a nightly escape will be overlain with the sobering realities of American life in the summer of 2020 – a still-growing pandemic, a rising social justice movement – to the point where its chief missions of entertaining the nation and identifying a champion will become almost secondary to the duty of keeping everyone safe and the effort to reassert its relevance in a rapidly changing world.

Forget for a moment whether a 60-game regular season, in a sport that typically runs 162, can be considered legitimate in the context of baseball history. The larger question for now is whether the sport can pull off even that short a schedule over these next two-plus months, plus a postseason in October, without having to abort. It is as much a science experiment as a championship pursuit.

Just to get to this point – an Opening Day delayed by nearly five months – required a rancorous economic negotiation between the league and the players' union, a 113-page operations manual that outlines in painstaking detail the health-and-safety protocols for this season, an every-other-day coronavirus testing regimen for all essential personnel, and a roughly three-week summer camp that threatened to buckle at times beneath the weight of positive tests, opt-outs and players expressing reservations about the whole endeavor.

The list of the missing, as the season begins, includes stars such as Buster Posey and David Price, who are among a dozen or so opt-outs, as well as Aroldis Chapman and Austin Meadows, who are on the injured list after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

But now that baseball is here, fans, both hardcore and casual, are presented with a stark choice: recoil from the altered version of the sport being presented in 2020, or embrace what undoubtedly will be the most unusual, most frenetic season in Major League Baseball history.

There is ample fodder for both stances. The rule book for 2020, for one thing, has been loaded with changes, mostly in the name of expediency. At some point Thursday night, a Nationals batter will become the first National Leaguer in regular season history to serve as a designated hitter in his home park. If the game reaches extra innings, each half-inning will begin with a runner on second base.

There will be strange sights in nearly every camera shot: personnel wearing masks in the dugout and sometimes on the field, some players sitting in the first few rows of seats to promote social distancing, and stands that are otherwise devoid of people – except for the cardboard cutout variety.

Players are prohibited from spitting or high fiving. Baseballs that are touched by more than one position player will be taken out of play, sanitized and held for five days before being reused. Foul balls that wind up in the stands, will sit there, sad and lonely, until someone decides to retrieve them.

Viewers may also notice strategically placed, digital advertisements on their screens, including on the back of the pitchers' mound – an unwelcomed reminder of the harsh economic reality of baseball in 2020, without the revenues from in-person fans, and the fierce labor battle that dominated May and June.

The sounds of the game will come from announcers who in many cases will be watching remotely, and from canned fan noise – originating from a computer program loaded with 75 different sounds, its operator shifting between each like a concert pianist, with the same razor-thin margin for error: One wrong chord, one missed beat, and the entire fantasy is shot.

But if you can put aside the sensory deprivation, the jarring alterations to the sport's traditions and – easier said than done – the creeping dread of watching something that may be neither wise nor safe, this season has the potential to thrill and astound in ways never before contemplated.

"This is awesome. There's been no season like this before," said New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, the reigning NL rookie of the year. "And so right now, in a weird way, we're a part of history. It's different for sure. It's not ideal, but I'm just so, so happy we're finally back and playing baseball."

In 2020, the potential for statistical abnormalities and frivolities will be off the charts – as some toggling around on the helpful "60-game span leader boards" at Fangraphs.com demonstrates.

Somebody could hit .400 this season. (José Altuve, for example, hit .420 over a 60-game stretch from May to August in 2017.) A pitcher, his season reduced to around 12 starts, could post a sub-1.00 ERA. (Both Jack Flaherty and Hyun Jin Ryu were sub-1.00 over 12-start stretches at different points in 2019.) We can talk at a later date as to whether those achievements would stand up as legitimate.

Your home run champ might not hit 25 dingers, or even 20. A pitcher could win the Cy Young Award with a half-dozen wins.

Sixty games is just few enough for a bad team to look great, or a great one to look awful. Everyone knows the example of the 2019 Nationals, who were 27-33 and six games out of a playoff spot at the 60-game mark of what would be a World Series championship season. But the 2019 Colorado Rockies were the anti-Nationals: they were 31-29 through 60 games (and 37-23 in their best 60-game stretch) before collapsing to a 71-91 final record.

"It's like an expanded playoffs," St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler said last week. "You've got to go out guns blazing. There's no break-in time. From the first pitch on, you've got a 60-game sprint. They say baseball is a marathon – not this year."

We don't have to decide now which it's going to be: an ahistorical abomination or a wild and delightful joyride. Baseball, or something very much resembling it, is here again, and if we can make it to the end of October, we will have the entire winter to figure out what it was we have just witnessed.

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