These are the things I can’t wait to see: Byron Buxton running out a triple. Mike Trout‘s quick swing, so quick it looks as if he flips the ball over the center-field fence. Francisco Lindor‘s smile as he crosses home plate and wades into a dugout of happy teammates. Nolan Arenado intercepting a ground ball in the hole and, from his backside, throwing a laser to first. Max Scherzer circling the mound after a strikeout. Gerrit Cole‘s joy in his first start in Yankee Stadium.
Here are things I do not understand: Why did it take so long for Major League Baseball and the players’ association to get to this moment when they agreed on just about nothing? Why did the stewards of the game recklessly drag it over the past six weeks? Why is the relationship between the union and MLB so toxic and unproductive? Why was there such tone-deafness to the national and international context?
This is what is best about this job: talking with players about the difference-making adjustments they make. A grip change on a curveball. A moderation of a stance. The change in defensive positioning.
This is what is worst about baseball: that the potential for labor strife will continue to loom over the sport, so long as the owners remain tethered to incrementalism and the union leadership remains so generally passive and obstructionist in its engagement. The two sides need to find a way to build and grow their sport together. What we have now is the most minimal armistice. They are not close to long-term solutions.
This is what we will see: iconic players getting back to climbing leaderboards. Albert Pujols needs four home runs to match Willie Mays’ 660 and 41 hits to catch Nap Lajoie for 14th place on the all-time list. Justin Verlander has 225 wins, with his journey to 300 paused. Miguel Cabrera‘s next home run, his 478th, will move him past future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre.
This is what I can’t wait to hear, if common sense rules and the two sides add this addendum to their cease-fire: the players wearing microphones, as they did in ESPN’s All-Access week back in March, when Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant laughed at each other from across the field, when Freddie Freeman narrated his trip around the bases, when we were happy Dominic Smith wouldn’t stop talking.
This will be something to watch: Will there be players who, under the circumstances, decide to opt out of a shortened season that will inevitably be viewed in history as an outlier? Perhaps out of concern for a coronavirus infection, an underlying health risk or maybe because the risk/reward tilt for potential free agents is so skewed — an injury, or a horrific small-sample performance, could dramatically affect offers in the open market next winter.
This is a reality bound to manifest: Because the agreement to return doesn’t contain any mechanisms to protect this winter’s free agents, they are certain to get gouged. Teams will cling to the youngest players because they are the cheapest, and the long-term obligations to veterans like Trout must be honored — so it is the midlevel free agents who will be wrecked.
This is another reality bound to manifest: The players of today are in better shape than any of their baseball ancestors, and even after this strange and unusual time, the vast majority of them will be ready to go. Pitchers will be throwing 100 mph. Hitters will be hacking, and crushing the ball.
What we won’t know for at least another year: How has the labor war affected the popularity of the sport?
What we will see right away: players and teams joining in the larger societal movements. Some will take a knee for the national anthem and will be followed by others, just as some players initially wore No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson in 1997, before everybody wore that number. Some will find ways to honor coronavirus first responders, EMTs and nurses and doctors, and there will be charity.
What everybody in the game will be wondering when the games begin: How will the baseballs of 2020 play? Will they fly like golf balls, as in 2019, or die on the warning tracks, as in 2014? The debate over enhancements will continue.
These are the teams that are dangerous in a shortened season: just about all of them, because a sport famously viewed as a marathon will become a 10K. One sprint of wins could propel the worst teams to the top.
These are the teams that are especially dangerous in a shortened season: the teams saturated with roster depth and strong bullpens. The Los Angeles Dodgers. The New York Yankees. The Tampa Bay Rays, who should be a favorite among the gamblers.
This is what might lie ahead: High anxiety, accelerated competition, in which a three-game losing streak for any team will border on catastrophe and a three-game winning streak could propel you into first place.
This is also what might lie ahead: the enormous and uncontrollable impact of COVID-19. Teams being forced to move out of their homes, as governors and mayors issue mandates. Teams becoming hot spots, with one or two or more staffers or players testing positive during the season. Somebody under Major League Baseball’s umbrella getting very sick, or worse, forcing everyone involved to answer an impossible question for themselves: Was trying to play in 2020 the right thing to do?