MLB’s opening day latest signal of American life returning to normal

A year after the pandemic upended sports around the globe, causing shutdowns, delays and rescheduling — including Major League Baseball’s regular season being reduced to 60 games — America’s pastime is set to begin anew, as the country climbs out of the ravages left by Covid-19.

Teams played to empty stadiums last year, with the exception of postseason games at neutral sites where a limited number of fans were allowed to attend. But fans will be in the stands this year, although all but one of the 30 teams will have reduced capacity at first.

That one team, the Texas Rangers, will have a full house at their home opener — 40,518 fans at the year-old Globe Life Field against the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday, April 5. Most other MLB clubs are opening at 20 to 25 percent capacity, with the smallest being Boston’s storied (and cramped) Fenway Park, which will permit only 4,500 fans (12 percent).

Unlike a year ago, when there were myriad uncertainties, players seem eager to get back to the diamond this spring. During a video conference call Monday, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge gushed about the franchise’s quest for a 28th World Series title and the start of the season, which is scheduled to be a full 162-game campaign.

“I’m as fired up as ever,” said Judge, just over a week before the Yankees’ home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays next Thursday, April 1. “It’s not a sprint like it was last year.”

Earlier in spring training, Marlins third baseman and outfielder Brian Anderson said he and his teammates were eager to continue the club’s momentum from last year, when the Marlins made the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

“Just excited to be here. We’re all excited to finally get out there on the field,” Anderson said. “We’re ready to go.”

It is an interesting juncture for the sport, because while daunting challenges lay ahead — all 30 teams playing another season during an ongoing pandemic, and MLB ownership and the players’ union preparing for what many expect to be bruising and contentious labor negotiations at the end of the season — baseball can also offer a strong salve while the country continues to restore itself.

“Coming out of this pandemic, baseball is a unique sport because it’s played every day. There is something for the person who seeks that levity for three to four hours each day,” former Mets pitcher Ron Darling, now a broadcast analyst with SNY, Turner Sports and the MLB Network, said. “Regions around the country have gone through terrible times, and society, fandom, they can kind of reconnect. That is a unique place (for baseball) to be.”

Jerry Reinsdorf, the longtime Chicago White Sox owner, has witnessed work stoppages, commissioner changes and his franchise winning the 2005 World Series, its first title since 1917. The current moment the sport finds itself in was not lost on Reinsdorf.

“We are proud of the important and historic role baseball plays in our country, offering respite during some of the most difficult times or in providing fans with a sense of comfort when circumstances seemed uncertain,” Reinsdorf said in a statement. “We believe this is a moment when baseball can indeed serve our fans and our communities again as we all hope for a gradual return to normal.”

And baseball super agent Scott Boras, who represents some of the game’s biggest stars like Phillies slugger Bryce Harper and Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, had an even more succinct outlook for 2021: “Baseball’s volume of games provides a daily routine and fabric of our American way of life. Simply said, baseball signifies American normalcy.”

Simply said, baseball signifies American normalcy

It was anything but normal last year when spring training began. When players arrived at their respective camps, commissioner Rob Manfred had already released a report that concluded the Houston Astros had orchestrated an illegal electronic sign-stealing scheme, including during their 2017 World Series championship run. Manfred only disciplined the team’s general manager, manager and one coach tied to the scheme, and Astros players were given immunity. Manfred later referred to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and spring training shut down completely. MLB and the Players Association scrambled to salvage a season, but the two sides bickered over money and salary payout prior to the start, angering fans and creating poor optics when the country was already in the throes of a pandemic.

Teams had to follow strict health and safety protocols last year, but early on there were several outbreaks, notably with the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. But baseball navigated through the regular season and 16 teams were part of an expanded playoff format, with the Dodgers crowned World Series champions.

This year there is a 108-page operations manual that teams are to follow and which was agreed upon by baseball and the players’ union. Yankees President Randy Levine said the lessons learned from the last 12 months will serve the sport well going forward.

“People are more educated, more prepared. We all know how to take the appropriate precautions, which we’re doing in all the ballparks when we address fans coming back,” said Levine. “It’s exciting. We feel confident the protocols can work, and many have been used before. Hopefully, as the weather gets warmer, as more people get vaccinated, we move towards herd immunity, and we can have more and more people in the stands, and try and get back to as much normalcy as we can.”

Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ longtime general manager, said one significant layer to baseball’s return is the economic stimulus for different businesses.

“When the Yankees fly into Chicago to play the White Sox, we will take 80 percent capacity of a hotel, driving business for all their workers, the hotel property, food service group, the airline industry,” said Cashman. “The economic impact during spring training alone, in all of these communities, along with fans coming down, that’s hugely impactful.”

Mets president Sandy Alderson echoed some of those sentiments but was measured when discussing where baseball fits in the country’s recovery process.

“There is a chance during the season that we get back to something resembling normal. The transition from where we’ve been through this pandemic, to where we may be at the end of the year will track the course of the season,” said Alderson. “I’m not sure what role we play in that transition. This whole experience has been and will continue to be much bigger than baseball. Granted, playing baseball every day is one indication of normalcy. That’s good. But getting us all back to normal is more about science than sports or entertainment.”

Even though the vaccination rollout continues, there are still concerns about the spread of variants, and whether a new surge in positive cases could occur. While overall cases are down nationwide, at least 14 states have seen cases spike in the past two weeks, according to an NBC News tally.

“A remaining unknown is the variants versus vaccinations. We have these variants of the disease that are more contagious,” said Dr. Christopher Worsham, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Harvard Medical School. “Those can wreak havoc while we vaccinate the population. Yes, vaccines work against these variants, but if we do not get people vaccinated before the variants continue to spread, that’s where we run into trouble. The virus is still calling the shots, but I think at this point we are better at understanding how to deal with what the virus is making us do.”

“There is no reasonable argument to lift a mask mandate,” added Worsham. “Pretending like the coronavirus has gone away before it has, that is a problem. We have a very good shot at letting people get to baseball games and other sports, but we make it less and less likely every time we start pretending that the pandemic is over. It’s not over.”

Beyond the health concerns that teams and players will confront, the owners and players’ union have labor negotiations looming at the end of the year, and the two sides are on anything but cordial terms. One baseball executive went as far as to say the labor situation will be a “distraction” the entire ‘21 season. It’s possible the sport could face its first work stoppage since the 1994 strike that forced the cancellation of the World Series.

Economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist said the divide that has been created is due to poor communication lines between the owners and Players Association.

“There needs to be some broader attention to public relations,” said Zimbalist. “There needs to be more good sense brought to that relationship (between ownership and players) and to the bargaining table. The level of distrust is deep, and there’s a lot of work to be done. At the end of the day, it’s about taking a step back, looking reflectively at their roles and communicating better.”

But on the cusp of opening day, players seem to be putting aside any simmering ill will directed toward Manfred and their employers. Darling said he has noticed during spring training this year a palpable excitement among players, particularly with the return of fans cheering from the stands.

“The players seem to be very at home at the ballpark again,” said Darling. “The anticipation that people are going to be watching excites them to no end.”

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said that major league games being played again “will look like a welcome savior for awhile.”

“I’m very happy to see the season start,” said Vincent. “Baseball, like all sports, is a major distraction, and the country is desperate to have anything that looks even remotely like normal.”