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Baseball’s Return: Why the Normal Stuff Doesn’t Matter

Brett Barnett

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Minnesota Twins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

By now, you’ve all heard that baseball is coming back. On July 1, teams will return for Spring Training 2.0 before the regular season begins July 23 and 24. There are many other outlets covering what exactly is (and is not) going to happen during this season. Here’s the MLB news release; here’s a link to The Athletic with an article by Jayson Stark; here’s some speculation at ESPN about the wildness that is certain to occur this season.

I’ll quickly outline some of what to expect if you haven’t seen the news floating around and what it means for the Pittsburgh Pirates. You should expect to see 60 regular season games – which, of course, is 102 fewer than a normal season. We will still see the Pirates taking on regular divisional rivals, along with the corresponding American League division, the AL Central.

There will be a universal designated hitter, which could likely find its way into the game in a full-time capacity in the coming years. To the chagrin of plenty of fans, extra innings will begin with a runner on second base. (I have to say, as a scorekeeper and TrackMan operator in the minor leagues when this rule was first implemented there, it was certainly interesting. Traditionalists will hate my attitude on this: It’s not that bad.)

Teams will carry a pool of 60 players, which means we could certainly see some young talent like Ke’Bryan Hayes. Teams will also carry 30 players for the first two weeks, then 28 on the 15th day of the season, and then finally to the now-normal 26.

Those are the main points, but there are a host of other considerations, like the “no-spitting” rule which will be widely implemented, and challengingly enforced, across the game.

Now, to move on about how to approach this season. You’re all aware of baseball’s snail-pace, of its molasses slow pace of play. Most of you love this, me included, while some of you are seeking to quicken the pace of games in seemingly anyway possible. Recommendations include shortening time between innings, putting a clock on pitchers, and even shortening the game to seven innings. Some of those are more extreme than others.

While MLB wants to keep players on the field and around each other for as short a time as possible, we won’t see any drastically speedier games, I would imagine, though we may shave some time. But what we will see is a lot fewer games. That implies a sort of frenetic pace to the season, which may spillover into the games themselves.

Now every game matters. If a team is trying to win, and I assume they are, then they might feel the energy of a shortened season within each game and with each pitch. This may lend itself to a bit of electricity throughout the shortened season. But here’s my thesis: Players will probably care about wins – but fans shouldn’t.

This season is historical and unprecedented for a number of reasons. We’ll all remember it, certainly, and while there may not be an official asterisk beside the names of division winners, wild card recipients, or the World Series victor, many of us will perform a mental diagnosis and affix an asterisk anyway.

Personally, the last thing I want to happen is for a team like the Pirates to win the World Series in a year like this and then never be able to point to this year as a year in which they won the World Series because I’ll be met with laughs and mentions of asterisks (much like the Houston Astros are now).

And so, in a season where 32-28 may well be good enough to get into the playoffs, we shouldn’t be focusing on wins and losses. We should be focusing on storylines, the oddity of all of this, and the certainty that we’ll revel in baseball’s real and true return: 162 games, fans in the stands, and a season not dictated by a pandemic.

I also won’t be focusing on any .400 hitters – or any other averages for that matter. ERA, OPS, FIP, all those numbers won’t matter too much to me this time around, simply because it’s only over 37 percent of a normal season. What will perhaps be most interesting is how history regards the top performers of this season. Will they be given a special place? When future fans are scrolling through Baseball Reference and they see that Nolan Arenado hit .412, will they stop and question it? Will they be aware that this season was so abnormal? Or will they only think, “Man, that Arenado was great that year.”

Time will tell. The only thing I’m certain of is that, as a Pirates’ fan, a World Series won’t mean much this year. It’s certainly not something I want to hold onto. Instead, I’ll just enjoy the games as they come, as well as the outcomes, whatever they may be. Wins and losses won’t bother me. The only exigent circumstance W-L will matter to me is if a team is 50-10 or 10-50. Everything else is just filler. Can you imagine what the World Series celebration will look like this year? Will they be excited or tame? Will they care at all?

This much is true: We’re in for a wild and unique ride this year, so buckle in. But the standings don’t matter.