Ring the church bells, the long wait is over! Sports are officially back… for now, anyway.
That’s right, in four days time, Major League Baseball will return to our TV screens as the New York Yankees take on the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals on ESPN. The start of the long-delayed 2020 MLB season will mark the first time one of the four major sports leagues has played an official game since March 11, when the NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was abruptly ended mid-quarter after news broke that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Boy, doesn’t that feel like years ago now?
In any case, as a self-admitted baseball fan, I’m very excited about this. But if you aren’t, that’s okay. Whatever your gripe may be with the sport—be it the pace of play, spoiled millionaires, scandal fatigue, or any other valid criticism—with literally nothing else going on in sports, this is the perfect time to give it another chance. Here is an Opening Day lineup’s worth of reasons why I believe this to be true.
1. These Games Actually Matter
Say what you will about the asterisks that may need to be applied to anything that happens during this 60 game season (a full 100 games less than the typical 162), but one thing cannot be denied: the competition will be ramped up. One of the biggest complaints I hear from my friends who don’t like baseball is the extreme length of the season. Fair enough—if you haven’t grown up with it, I can understand why a sport whose everyday contests carry such little weight in the grand scheme of things could be hard to get into.
Well, folks, this is your chance. Each team has just 60 chances to stake their spot in the playoffs, and you can expect players whose livelihoods depend on their short-term production to be motivated to bring it every single day. Plus greater competition means greater entertainment, so the next two months ought to be a titillating trip around the bases.
2. This Season Will be Completely Unique
The COVID-19 edition of the American Pastime will be, unsurprisingly, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Players and owners were unable to reach an agreement on terms for the shortened season, and as a result, a number of dramatic changes were mandated by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to make sure play could be carried on safely. Among these changes are a universal designated hitter in both leagues, an automatic runner on base in extra innings to shorten games, increased interleague play to reduce travel, a new three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, more double-headers and expanded rosters.
For better or worse, these are the conditions in which we’re getting a baseball season at all, and we must deal with them for the time being. But here’s the flip side: in a 60-game season, many things are possible that you may never see again. For example, if someone gets off to a hot start it’s entirely possible that we could see a player hit .400 for the first time since Ted Williams in 1941, or a pitcher post a sub-1.40 ERA for the first time in over a century.
Of course, any such achievement will be treated with more than a grain of salt given the circumstances. But regardless, it’s probably something you’re never going to forget—so you might as well stick around and see what happens.
3. The Reds are Good for Once
If you’re looking for a team to root for, the closest stadium to the state of Kentucky by far is Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. A good portion of Big Blue Nation are Reds faithful, and although I don’t count myself among them, I’ve heard it’s nice! (Shhh, don’t tell them). Despite some struggles in recent years, the Reds are a franchise rich in tradition, winning five world championships and nine National League pennants in their 138-year history.
And you know what else? They should be pretty good this year. The club made several aggressive offensive acquisitions over the winter, signing two power-hitting free agents in second baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielder Nick Castellanos to pair with six-time All-Star Joey Votto, young hotshot center fielder Nick Senzel and last year’s second-leading NL home run hitter in Eugenio Suarez. They should also boast one of the best rotations in baseball, led by former All-Stars Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray. They’re expected to compete with the Cubs and Cardinals for the NL Central lead, and should have a good shot at the Wild Card if they fall short. Now is as good a time as any to hop on the Redlegs’ bandwagon.
Of course, if you’re so inclined, you could also pick my Atlanta Braves to root for. If you do, I can promise a fun regular season, immediate emotional attachments to young studs Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies, and an inevitable flame-out in the first round of the playoffs; it’s a great time. You’re free to choose any team, really, as long as you don’t pick the Cardinals (sorry, I don’t make the rules).
4. It May Just Be Mike Trout’s Year
If you’re the type of sports fan that roots for individual players over teams, there’s not a better man to follow than Angels centerfielder Mike Trout. The undisputed greatest player in the game has put up monster numbers nearly every season of his nine-year career in Anaheim, but thanks to mismanagement and a lame duck supporting cast, he has only one playoff appearance to show for it (a three-game ALDS sweep by the Royals in 2014). As a result, his national profile is the lowest of any major sport’s comparable marquee players; according to the Washington Post, research shows that barely one in five Americans even know who he is.
However, 2020 could be a different story. For starters, the Angels finally gave Trout the hard-hitting lineup protection he needs by shelling out to sign free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, one of the top 10 hitters in the game. They’re also expected to get their first full season out of Japanese two-way phenom Shohei “Sho Time” Ohtani, a budding superstar who lights it up both at the plate and on the mound like no one since Babe Ruth.
This could be Mike Trout’s best chance at reaching the world series, and if he does get there, trust me—it will be worth watching.
5. Baseball’s Next Generation is Here, and They’re Bringing Fun Back
For a long time, baseball’s biggest problem has been its inability to market itself, especially to younger audiences. Its reputation is like that of an older relative who was pretty fun to hang out with back in the day, but doesn’t get around much anymore. But as a new decade dawns in the sport, this may be beginning to change. Leading the charge to put the excitement back in America’s Pastime is a rising tide of young talent, backed by analytics, who have put the league’s old guard on notice. Flashy play is in, and for what feels like the first time in a while, you can see the game’s best players having fun out there.
In addition to Acuña and Albies in Atlanta, MLB’s “Let the Kids Play” campaign has been powered by the likes of Cody Bellinger in L.A., Juan Soto in Washington, Tim Anderson in Chicago, Pete Alonso and Gleybar Torres in New York, Fernando Tatis, Jr. in San Diego, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio in Toronto, and many, many more. Top talent is arriving in the big leagues from all directions, and with the sport at a crucial crossroads, it could be setting up to make the 2020s the most explosively significant decade since… well, the 1920s. Folks, get ready for a whole lotta dingers.
6. The Astros’ Inevitable Bean-Ball Tour
If you happened to be living under a rock this winter, you may have missed one of the biggest news stories in sports: revelations of systematic, technology-boosted sign-stealing employed by the Houston Astros in 2017 and 2018, including their ’17 World Series championship run. It was a scandal that rocked baseball, sending shockwaves to every corner of the sport while inspiring anger and disgust from players and coaches alike (yes, even Nick Markakis was pissed). What was their punishment, you ask? Heavy fines, suspensions for the manager and GM, a few forfeited draft picks and… not much else.
The reaction to these sanctions has been almost as controversial as the initial report, with most of MLB twitter saying that letting the title stand still doesn’t feel right. But what everyone seems to agree on is that when the season does start, there will be a reckoning for Astros players stepping in the batters’ box. In fact, so certain is every one that there will be retaliation, right now you can go on multiple websites and place bets on the total number of hit-by-pitches Houston players receive this year and which players will get it the worst.
For as bad as the scandal was, now that it’s over there’s something for everyone to enjoy. For baseball purists, this year should prove that the “unwritten rules” (i.e. if you cross the line, there will be consequences) are alive and well; for everyone else, we get to watch people fight on a baseball field, and who doesn’t enjoy that?
7. Cats in the Pros, MLB Edition
Kentucky may not be traditionally thought of as a talent-producing baseball powerhouse, but the Nick Mingione era has been great in that respect, and the products are starting to show at the Major League level. As Jack Pilgrim reported last month, 10 former Wildcats were selected to initial MLB player pools for the season’s first month. Included in this group were established big-leaguers James Paxton (P, N.Y. Yankees), Trevor Gott (P, San Francisco), Luke Maile (C, Pittsburgh), J.T. Riddle (IF, Pittsburgh) and Taylor Rogers (P, Minnesota). Meanwhile, 2017 Super Regional hero Evan White (IF, Seattle) is expected to make his major league debut with the Mariners, and Zach Reks (IF, L.A. Dodgers) and Zack Brown (P, Milwaukee) should also have a shot at appearing before the season ends.
I don’t know what the Kentucky record is for most players playing at the Major League level at one time, but if Coach Minge keeps building momentum, I suspect it won’t stand much longer. Regardless, it’s a fun time to be a fan of the bat cats.
8. When in Doubt, Embrace the Chaos
If nothing else, the 2020 MLB season should be a wonderfully entertaining chaotic mess. The games will come rapid-fire, and one day’s disappointment can be left behind in the blink of an eye. The interleague format means that teams from each division will play a third of their games against opposite-league teams from the equivalent division (NL East vs. AL East, etc.), creating a whole host of interesting new matchups we wouldn’t normally see. There will be more fluky upsets, more chances to see top prospects due to the canceled minor league season, and few of those annoying workload restrictions for pitchers. The Padres will be wearing BROWN, for chrissakes!
Moreover, with no fans allowed in the stadiums for the time being, the league is reportedly planning on piping-in crowd noise from the MLB: The Show video game in order to keep players from going insane. A handful of teams including the Giants and A’s are also allowing fans to pay to put cardboard cutouts of themselves in their empty seats as a way of selling tickets. At this point, all I can hope for is that they follow the KBO’s lead and throw in a few stuffed animals for good measure.
It’s going to be all-out insanity, and I love it.
9. We Need Sports More than Ever
More than anything, the thing I’m most grateful for with MLB returning—despite the mess it took to get to this point—is that it means there’s hope for sports. Like everyone, I am sick and tired of sitting around with nothing to watch but documentaries and Netflix. Summers are meant for sitting back, cold beverage in hand, watching baseball; not anxiously monitoring the news to see if it’s even safe to go to the beach.
It’s a weird time, and we need normalcy more than ever. That’s why I know I’ll be watching baseball this weekend, and I hope you give it a chance, too. Play Ball!