I’m an optimistic person by nature, and that pertains to the sports teams that I follow as well as “real” life in general. I’ve had my share of setbacks and hurdles, but by and large, I’ve been able to see the positive in most situations.
The same has held true for the last three months. Despite my advanced age – I’m old enough to remember Bob Veale’s first full season as a starter – I’ve tried not to dwell on the potentially deadly outcomes of COVID-19. For a while there, it was not easy; the numbers were staggering and getting worse each day. As time has gone on, my level of concern has fallen, although in no way do I think I – or anyone else – am out of the woods entirely.
As far as baseball goes, in the early days of the pandemic I remained optimistic that we would have a 2020 season, even if it was truncated. Even half a season – 81 games or so – would have provided a much-needed distraction to what was taking place. But then negotiations between Major League Baseball and its players union seemingly ground to a halt, and the commissioner began talking about a 50-game schedule, and I started questioning whether it would be worth playing at all. I mean, is an OPS of .800 or a WHIP of 1.13 over 50 games (or 10 starts, for a pitcher) meaningful?
Then came the events of the past week or so, which pretty much pushed COVID-19 and the resulting health and economic catastrophes from the front pages. And it made me wonder even more – is the 2020 baseball season worth saving, or starting? As important as the game has been to me all my life, it’s hard to get psyched thinking about who the Pirates’ No. 3 starter is going to be when people are fighting in the streets.
Although I consider myself a student of the game, I’ve never been one who lives and dies with my team’s results. I enjoy the game for the game itself — and the back stories of the participants. Perhaps that’s from spending significant time working as an actual journalist, covering games. Most sports writers will tell you that the first time you step into a press box, you relinquish your fan membership card for good. And even if you get out of the sports writing business and are free to renew that membership, it’s never the same. At least it’s never been the same for me.
All of this is a rather roundabout way of saying that, three months ago, I couldn’t have conceived of getting through a summer without baseball. It’s been the background music – and sometimes the actual headline act – to my summer life for decades. But somehow, I’ve gotten through April and May this year without it, and while it hasn’t been fun or easy, each day has gone by and I’ve survived without the game. And now, as the calendar heads toward mid-June, the prospect for a meaningful 2020 season grows more dim. Even if the owners and MLBPA came to an agreement today — which is highly unlikely — what’s the soonest that games could be played? Mid-July? While it certainly would offer some entertainment on any given night, the real lure of the game, at least for me – watching how a player performs over a full season – will be out the window entirely. So, what do we really gain?
This isn’t to say I’m opposed to the owners and players coming to their senses and hammering out an agreement to cobble together some semblance of a 2020 season. I know I’d be watching and probably getting plenty of joy from the day-to-day doings. It’s just that, at least to me, whatever that season looks like will seem like something between real baseball and spring training baseball. The records and statistics won’t be “real” in my eyes. I’ll never consider what a player does over 50 games or even 80 games a true season’s work – for better or for worse. I’m not saying that’s at all fair; it’s just the way I view the game and the importance of the long haul. Show me what you can do over six months or 150-160 games.
That being said, if the two sides do reach an agreement and baseball is played, I’d like to see the Pirates use the 50 to 80 games to take a long look at the younger players. Jarrod Dyson? I could see his veteran value over a full 162-game season, but I’d rather watch Jason Martin in center field for 50 games, unless he were to prove over the first 30 that he’s completely incapable of performing at the major league level. The same goes for Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base. I have nothing against Colin Moran and in fact I probably like him more than most, but – like with Dyson and Martin – I’d rather see what Hayes can do against major league competition on an everyday basis. This also applies to the starting rotation. Derek Holland could prove to be a serviceable starter, but I’d rather see Chad Kuhl or J.T. Brubaker – or a combination of the two, if healthy – take Holland’s turn in the rotation.
Some might disagree and say the Pirates need to go with the best – and most seasoned – players because you never know what might happen in a short season. They could get off to a hot start and ride it all the way into the playoffs if we’re only looking at 50 games. That argument has some validity. But for me, I’d rather see Martin and Hayes get 200 to 300 at-bats, and Kuhl and/or Brubaker get 10 to 15 starts, and you’ll have a better idea of what they’re capable of doing when 2021 rolls around.