As the world of sports took an unprecedented hiatus due to the pandemic, tournaments went back to square one on how to reopen their seasons. Initiatives such as the “bubble”, fan-less arenas, and mandatory health protocols have altered the landscape. With different strategies and thorough planning, a handful of leagues have begun to pick up the pace in returning to action, one of which is the Major League Baseball (MLB).
Shortened to a 60-game regular season sprint to the playoffs, the MLB, met with both raised eyebrows and gleeful cheers, announced that their 2020 season would run from July 24 to October 28. Although a variety of concerns took time to be ironed out before and during the restart, games have persisted, providing fans with much-anticipated competitions and rivalries.
As a premier league with a rich history, the MLB has to face a daunting task in jump-starting their season with careful preparation. Commissioner Rob Manfred unilaterally imposed the season restart that introduced new guidelines, both for the safety of the players and coaches. Along with regular testing and health protocols, the league now bans players from spitting on and licking their fingers, which has been a long practiced tradition in the sport. One of the major adjustments is the extra-innings rule that permits clubs to have a runner placed on second base to begin every extra-inning. Aside from adding intensity and thrill to the game, this is crucial to speeding up the tempo of the match, which is vital to complete the rushed season.
With so much on the line, issues were tensely negotiated by athletes, club owners, and league officials, which caused further delay. Spring training—which ensures preparedness and conditioning of the players—was a point of contention because the lockdowns hindered teams from practicing. In addition, foreign-born players who went back to their home countries may have a difficult time returning to the United States, as the Department of Homeland Security imposed stricter travel policies. The breakdown of terms did not go smoothly as the MLB Players Association and the Commissioners’ propositions concluded with both sides unable to find common ground.
Having its shortest season since 1878, MLB expanded qualifying postseason contenders from 10 to 16. With more ball clubs in the race for the World Series, it creates more pressuring and thrilling matches that would escalate the quality of play. The eight playoff teams per league will include the top two teams for each division and the two teams with the next-best records.
Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins, one of the unexpected underdogs, surprisingly made their first playoff run since 2003. Although eliminated in the National League Division Series by the Atlanta Braves, team manager Don Mattingly is excited for what the future will bring as their top prospects made pleasing MLB debuts. Sixto Sanchez
and Corey Dickerson were bright names in the Marlins’ magical run as they finished second in the NL East and sixth for the playoffs. Despite being far from their goal, Mattingly believes that they will be able to gain momentum in the succeeding seasons.
Plagued in many ways
Baseball has always had its place in the heart of American culture. The league was founded in 1903, more than a century ago, in a time when America was just beginning to become a global powerhouse. During this time, baseball slowly became integrated into the identity of the country.
During the Second World War, there was a debate on whether or not the MLB season should be continued after the country had encountered the Pearl Harbor attacks. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt gave the go signal to continue the season as “it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” In a similar fashion, a this point in time, while the whole world is waging a war against the virus, the nation’s spirit and attitude toward baseball is kept alive—even during a time of physical distancing.
Last March, the league was optimistic to continue its spring training games while maintaining a certain target date for the start of the regular season. However, the pandemic worsened, forcing officials to cancel the spring training games and to push back the initial opening of the regular season. Unlike the NBA and NFL which were already underway, the MLB, deemed as the “most aggressive” of all professional sports in the United States, had to fit in a whole baseball season during the latter half of the year.
After numerous talks and discussions on how the season should go on in terms of the venue, salaries, and the overall operational framework, 5,000 MLB employees were tested and 0.7 percent tested positive for the virus. Yet, the league was persistent in pushing through with the season by creating safety protocols that minimize the risk of any player or staff catching the virus. Several players like Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman, and Joe Ross decided to opt-out of the season, which cast more doubts in reopening the league.
“We’re going to be lucky if we get 60 games now given the course of the virus,” Manfred expressed.
The season continued to take a downward turn as the league was forced to cancel its All-Star Game. Irregularities in the proposed schedule for the season have also occurred because of many disruptions. Ahead of opening night, Juan Soto tested positive for the virus, and shortly after, the Miami Marlins reported 20 cases within the team.
As several teams incurred more cases, and as it was revealed that the Marlins failed to follow health protocols during a trip, the league required each team to have a “compliance officer” to ensure that members of the team would follow strict health protocol measures.
Nonetheless, the MLB was able to conclude its season as the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their first World Series championship since 1988. Toppling the relentless Tampa Bay Rays in six games, the Dodgers wrapped up a historic run both for their team and the MLB. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable,” said Manfred after the league overcame the many obstacles surrounding its reopening.