For fans of the Kansas City Royals, opening day arrives with more of a sense of relief than a sense of excitement.
A shortened season, empty stadiums and prerecorded cheers will be the most noticeable changes when the Kansas City Royals open tonight in Cleveland. It won’t be the same, but for fans it will offer a feeling that some of the normal rhythms of our lives are returning in ways that are familiar if not quite the same.
In the National League, Cardinals fans will see a designated hitter in every game, while fans in both leagues will notice more regional rivalries to reduce travel. Other changes, announced before the coronavirus, are designed to limit pitching changes and speed up the pace of play.
Players and owners still fought about money prior to the midsummer opening. Even in a pandemic, some things never change.
At times, baseball takes to change like a rookie stepping into the box against Randy Johnson: reluctantly and with great trepidation. That’s one of the joys of baseball, that the game still moves at a 19th century tempo in the era of smartphones and Twitter.
But one thing we’ve learned in the newspaper business is that doing things the way they’ve always been done isn’t exactly a recipe for success, even if the core product still seems strong.
The lords of baseball would be wise to view this shortened season, with all its on-the-fly adjustments, as an opportunity to embrace changes that make the national pastime seem a little less stodgy. The most common complaint is that games are too long, but an argument can be made that it’s not the games but the season that could use a little tightening.
The beauty of a 60-game season is that the Royals won’t be out of the race until after the halfway point. A 60-game schedule is too short in a noncoronavirus year, but something less than the full 162, plus an expanded playoff format, gives more teams more hope late into the summer. More hope means more fans and more viewers.
A shorter season also allows teams to stretch starting pitching, which is always in short supply.
Certain changes might seem gimmicky as this abbreviated season takes shape. Starting extra innings with a runner on second could prove as exciting as overtime in college football, or it could unfold like something from wiffle ball in the backyard. At any rate, bunting will become a more important skill, providing a respite from homers and strikeouts.
The point is, baseball shouldn’t long too much for the way things used to be.
Someday, fans will be allowed to return to stadiums for major-league games. If the virus-shortened season moves baseball into the 21st century, then there will be no need for recorded cheers when that day comes.