MLB opening day 2021 brings hope as normalcy slowly returns

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DENVER – There will be no downtown parades with high school marching bands. No traditional sell-offs outside of the state of Texas. No beer and hot dog sellers roaming the aisles of the stadium. No cash, only credit cards. And no masks, no entry.

Different norms, of course, but Major League Baseball’s opening day on Thursday has never been so beautiful.

There’s a schedule for 162 games – 102 over a year ago.

There will be a DH in the American League, not the National League, as it has been since 1973.

There will be three division winners and two wildcard teams that will contest the playoffs from each league as they did since 2012, but expanded to a field of 16 teams a year ago.

Finally a dose of normalcy, and it has never felt so good.

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“I’ve never seen the anticipation for an opening day that I feel about that day,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s the most anticipated opening day I’ve ever seen.

“I have to tell you that the idea of ​​being back and watching a full 162-game season with at least some fans in the stadium, I couldn’t be more excited.”

It’s no different from the players who spent all of last season talking about how cold and emotionless it felt without the fans, wondering if it felt like a real season at all.

Jacob deGrom, New York Mets right-handedLast year nobody really knew what to expect. You got in, had a month to get ready, then you play a short season.

“It’s definitely exciting,” said New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who will face Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer on Thursday. “Last year nobody really knew what to expect. You got in, had a month to get ready, then you play a short season.

“We’re trained to play 162 and hopefully more than that. We’re excited to have fans in the stands again and to get this going. ”

Some spring training tickets sold for nearly $ 200 in the Cactus League, despite the fact that the games only lasted five innings and funky rules.

“I just think people want to be back at the game,” said Manfred. “They really expect to be back at the stadium.”

There is growing optimism in the game and across the country that things could feel pretty much normal by midsummer.

“We hope to have a sense of normalcy sooner rather than later based on the trends we see,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The teams, starting with the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals on Monday night, have already started mass vaccination. Most teams will follow suit. The vaccinations aren’t mandatory, but when 85% of the players and staff on the teams get the shots, these safety and health logs will be removed so the players can eat together again, their families can join them on the street, and return to cards and video games playing together in the clubhouses.

“It’s an individual decision, I would never force anyone to do it,” said Dave Dombrowski, president of the Philadelphia Phillies. “I would like to point out, however, that we would point out that players would likely point out that when we hit 85%, their lives in terms of travel will change dramatically.”

A young Angels fan begs for a ball during a spring training game.Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

John Mozeliak, President of the St. Louis Cardinals, said, “I am confident that people will do this because the more vaccines that go into arms, the more freedom or normalcy we will ultimately experience.”

The Cardinals were closed for 19 days last summer when 10 players and eight staff tested positive for COVID-19. Even if they hit the 85% threshold, they won’t take to the streets without a mask.

“It doesn’t mean you can loosen the logs or step down your guard,” said Mozeliak. “I feel down here in Florida [during spring training] There is a feeling that the pandemic is behind us. I don’t think that’s a healthy mentality yet. “

Case in point was when the Washington Nationals discovered on Wednesday that one of their players tested positive for COVID-19 and another four players and a staff member must be quarantined for contact tracing, making them inactive on opening night.

MLB players showed their determination and discipline this spring, silencing the notion that the season had to be postponed for a month. Among the 72,751 tests, there were only 12 players and five staff who tested positive for COVID-19 after reporting to the spring training camp.

“The players and their families were excellent,” Clark told USA TODAY Sports. The guys committed to it and helped each other stay accountable. …

“We still have some challenges and concerns and the diligence needs to continue. But the position the boys took to play a full season for a full period of days, rather than a shortened window, was the right position. ”

Even Phillie Phanatic had to prepare for the coming season in spring training.

Even Phillie Phanatic had to prepare for the coming season in spring training.Mike Watters, USA TODAY Sports

Manfred said: “I cannot say enough about what the players and the club staff did during spring training. They did a phenomenal job of getting us through 60 [games] last year, and I think they were even better and more careful in spring training. ”

There will of course be obstacles when the schedule returns to normal. If you run out of bat in 1 ½ years, you have to score in the National League. Smaller players who didn’t play a single game last season, like Chicago White Sox’s Andrew Vaughn, will now play an important role in the big leagues. And who knows how homerun hitters will react with the modification of the baseballs after a record of 6,776 hits was achieved in 2019.

The players union continues to wish that a universal DH will be introduced this season as it is expected to last in 2022. MLB offered a universal DH in exchange for an extended postseason with 14 teams in the winter. The union firmly opposed the proposal. There were no counter-offers. The subject was never taken up again.

“The position we have taken on the DH issue since Day 1,” said Clark, “is that it is a health and safety issue.” So this concern remains. ”

While the conflict and distrust between the union and the MLB is ugly, and the potential for the first job break since 1994 looms this winter, there is still a full, unadulterated season of 162 games this year.

There will be fans in stadiums, the capacity of which is increasing every month. Club revenue will increase. The players get their full salaries again. Fans will cheer on their favorite teams and players. You will exploit the Houston Astros. And they’ll yell at and curse the referee crew and get instant replay results.

Yeah, just like the old days.

“I really don’t think our players have ever taken the fans for granted,” said Manfred, “but I believe the adage that absence makes the heart beat faster.” I think playing without fans for the first time reminded everyone how important fans are to the atmosphere in the stadium. ”

And after we’ve played the shortest season since 1878 and turned a marathon into a sprint, the grueling sport may receive deeper appreciation.

“It’s a separator and why baseball is the national pastime,” Maddon said. “You come home from work every day in the summer and you either turn on the radio or watch TV and see your favorite team play. And then all that excitement is that night, in this game, in your favorite player, in your favorite team whatever is going on, and you can do it every night in the summer, every night.

“You start at school, go through the summer, go back to school and you still go on.”

Baseball, in almost its pure and natural version (there will still be double headers with seven innings and a runner starting on the second base in additional innings), is finally back.

The two most beautiful words in sport have never been so passionately received on the opening day:

“Play ball.”

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Published April 1, 2021 at 10:34 a.m. UTC
Updated April 1, 2021 at 10:56 UTC