Used to be, the dumbest seven words in sports were “if the season were to end today.” Now they’re just a way of hedging against the brooding gospel that is baseball across this summer and, significantly, life in America.
That’s the least of it, too.
Lots of things could end today. Not just college football or pro football or even sports, but little institutions like the two-chair barber shop and the U.S. post office and, I don’t know, democracy. So the possibility exists that every baseball game could be the last for a while, if not necessarily for all teams (yet), certainly for one or two or three of them at a time. The season teeters atop a drooly test tube. And don’t we all.
Anyway, we’re about a third of the way through this, not counting October. If you were driving from New York to Los Angeles, you’d be in St. Louis, where, as it happens, they haven’t played a baseball game since July 26. That would leave a lot of road still to cover.
The beauty of the first three weeks of baseball is in the full-on trainwreck-ness of it, provided a trainwreck could be less than fatal and more than a simple breakdown and wouldn’t make too many people late for work. Like, there’s luggage everywhere but they’re still making coffee, people are shushing each other in the quiet car and the lock on the restroom door remains a mystery to most.
But, outside the several dozen men who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 (granted, a massive qualifier that hurts to even contemplate), the first few weeks of 2020 baseball has been entertaining. The game has delivered what we asked of it. That is, to fill our afternoons and evenings, to put some people back to work, to have it pass for baseball and to not take itself too seriously. Also, for more cursing on our televisions now that Al Swearengen is off the air.
What baseball asked of us was to suspend our expectations for a normal, shortened-by-two-thirds season. It wasn’t to be merely shorter. It was also to be exasperating and charming, imprudent and daring, chaotic and soothing, and very weird and familiar.
Well, through Sunday, some teams had played 23 games. One had played eight. Another, 15. That’s about how it’s gone.
They rolled into the season after a halved training camp and, as of Sunday night, 590 people had thrown at least one pitch in a major league game, only 241 (or 29 percent) fewer than did all of last season in about 2,100 fewer games. One-hundred-and-ten players have made their major league debuts, 10 of them Miami Marlins, 71 of the 110 pitchers, nine of those Houston Astros.
The season hadn’t cleared July when New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman observed, “We’re drinking out of a fire hose on all this stuff right now.” While this had to do with rescheduling games around the coronavirus he may also have forewarned league-wide roster management. Between the opt-outs, positive virus tests, injuries, 30- and then 28-man rosters and a couple dicey decisions in Cleveland, there have been a lot of moving parts.
Meantime, there are results, which are leading to standings and various statistics, which may, in about six weeks, lead to a very crowded postseason and then a champion. Regardless of how these weeks will be treated by those who write their history, and assuming there’s a normal to be had out there somewhere, the oddest of all baseball seasons carries its very own context.
It’s three players — Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Donovan Solano — batting better than .400 in the middle of August. None has as many as 85 at-bats. That makes it April in about every year but this one. Given the whims of two months of baseball, there was a good chance a relatively unknown player would hit for a big number. That would be Solano, the 32-year-old Colombian who, by the way, hit .344 in his final 45 games last season. Also, an excellent player would hit for a very low number. Therefore, Eugenio Suarez, Gary Sanchez, Max Muncy, Kris Bryant, Carlos Santana, Rafael Devers, Jose Altuve, Cody Bellinger and Miguel Cabrera are batting this side of .190. Nobody cares about batting average anymore. Except, for the moment, for these guys.
What to do when the entire season is a small sample size? Keep showing up. The last five batters to hit over .400 in their team’s first 60 games were Larry Walker, Paul O’Neill, Rod Carew, Chipper Jones and Tony Gwynn. Four are in the Hall of Fame, so it can’t be that easy.
It’s a handful of players — Mike Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr., Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts and J.T. Realmuto among them — with a chance to threaten 30 home runs in a 60-game season. Six years ago, the league leader hit 40.
It’s everyone falling in love with Tatis again and, for a while there, his San Diego Padres. For all that Manny Machado was to do for the next generation of Padres, it is rather the next generation that will keep Machado leaning forward. On plenty of nights Tatis has been the best player in the game.
It’s a crater in Boston. To begin with, the Red Sox were digging a new foundation. They may have gotten overzealous. They are awful defensively, have the worst team ERA in the game and are bottom five offensively.
It’s, then, Mookie Betts coming out hot with the Los Angeles Dodgers, establishing that the change in leagues, ballparks and scenery would cost him nothing in the way of production. The Red Sox clearly were willing to take the hit — in their lineup and their neighborhood — for trading one of the better players in franchise history. Still has to sting. And while the Dodgers turn out annually to be built for the longer haul, they are short-term outrunning the Colorado Rockies, whose 3.99 ERA over 22 games qualifies as a miracle.
It’s the Oakland A’s, who do everything well. Are you surprised that in a season that would require a little more than simply good baseball, that would ask every one of 30 teams to breathe and make solid choices and ignore the tumult and then play good baseball, it would be the A’s who did it as well — or better — than anyone?
It’s the notion the Tampa Bay Rays, as they are quite resourceful, might be that team in the East. And also that sometimes it’s good to have great players too, and in some cases it’s best not to overthink these things. So the New York Yankees, down LeMahieu, Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Tommy Kahnle, still don’t lose very often.
It’s the Marlins being locked in a hotel for eight days, then winning five games in a row. And the Cardinals being shut down for 16 days and winning three of four. In order to be good at baseball, the saying goes, it must be played every day. Watching it on television also sometimes works.
So, yeah, if the season ended today, which it might or might not, Mike Trout would be no closer to his fourth playoff game, the Baltimore Orioles would go home as a wild-card team, we’d never see the postseason bubble and there’d be three .400 hitters. It’s August, it’s April, the season is a third done and the fire hose is still wide open. Which means there’s plenty of road out there.
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