Four months late and with no fans in the stands, the Phillies finally reached opening day Friday.

Managing partner John Middleton was thrilled about that because, frankly, he had worried the season might not happen at all.

"I remember that day we left Clearwater on the 16th of March, knowing we were shutting down spring training," he said. "I was one of the last people out. Normally when you leave spring training, there's a sadness, but it's a good sadness. You have the sense that you had a good time here and it's been a great experience, but it's exciting because we're going to move on to the regular season.

"This time, there was that sadness tinged with this pall that you could feel coming across the country as the virus was expanding. You didn't know where it was going. So, I literally turned off the lights, walked out of the stadium and said to myself, 'I don't know what this world is going to be. I don't know when we're going to be back here, if it'll be this year, or next year.'

"Then the news got worse from about mid-March to mid-April. So, you never really knew for sure. Was I confident? Yeah, on some level. But there were a lot of doubts. It really wasn't until we got to late May, early June that I started to see things turn enough that I felt even more confident that we were going to get back."

Teams will play a 60-game season followed by a postseason that has grown from 10 teams to 16.


Middleton is confident that all 60 games will be played without interruption. He believes in the health and safety protocols that baseball has put in place and believes players are committed to making it all work. 

"All of the behavior that started roughly in the middle of March that was new and unknown to people isn't new and unknown anymore," Middleton said. "We've had months of practicing that behavior and what seemed so strange and difficult months ago is not so strange and difficult today.

"I think the other piece of that is, as you get closer to competition and the focus becomes winning games and you can see your path clearly, you understand the connection between, 'If I behave the right way today and this week and my teammates do, too, we can get on the field and play games.'"

The Phillies have not had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2011.

"Too long," Middleton said.

How does he see the National League East stacking up?

"It's probably the toughest division top to bottom," he said. "Even the Marlins, they have some terrific young players, particularly on their pitching staff. And they gave us fits last year, as we all know.

"I think we added two great free agents in Zack (Wheeler) and Didi (Gregorius). We made some improvements to our coaching staff. I think we've gotten better there. Our coaches are at least another player, if not more than a player.

"I think we're gaining on people and I'm optimistic. It comes down to two things: You have to be healthy and you have to be playing up to your ability. And if we're healthy and playing up to our ability, I think we're going to have a really good season. If we're not healthy or we're not playing up to our ability, then we're not going to have a really good season. It's all going to boil down to that.

"And COVID has thrown a whole new wrinkle into being healthy and taking care of yourself."

Major League Baseball and the Players Association reached a last-minute agreement Thursday to expand the postseason to 16 teams, eight in each league. The top two finishers in each division plus the two teams with the next best records in each league will qualify for the October tournament.

The expanded postseason will help the industry recoup some of the revenues it lost during the shutdown and with no fans in the stands.

Some don't like the expanded postseason because it will send more than half of the teams in MLB to the postseason. It's very possible that a team with a losing record will get there and have a chance to win the World Series.

But Middleton likes it.

"I think it's a really good move," he said. "The agreement is only for a year but I hope it gets extended beyond that."

It has been more than a decade since Middleton famously said he wanted his (bleeping) World Series trophy back.


What if he gets it back in a 60-game sprint and not a traditional 162-game marathon? Will it be as satisfying? Would there be an asterisk?

"No asterisk," Middleton said. "I can make a pretty compelling case that no baseball players, and more broadly, no professional athletes, have faced the challenges that they're going to face this year because of COVID. They're having to change their entire behavior, their family's behavior to keep them safe and healthy so they can stay on the field. There's a lot of strain with that, there's a lot of obstacles to overcome. In my own opinion, I think that strain and those obstacles are bigger than playing 100 extra games in a 162-game season. 

"I think mentally, this is going to be the most challenging year of their careers."

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