A flood of questions persist around any would-be season. Paramount is the one focused on acceptance of risk: How much would everyone involved be willing to chance since there will not be a perfect system?
Once that’s answered -- and that question alone comes framed with dozens of others -- another follows: How much is enough for the season to be considered legitimate?
This year will carry an asterisk no matter what transpires before the calendar closes. The swift spread of Coronavirus and subsequent attempts to squelch it stopped the baseball season. Baseball previously persisted through world wars. Labor disputes were the lone impasse to stall a season in the past. Not anymore.
So, the league and players need to decipher what they are willing to accept. And, future look backs will be dipped in caveats when assessing the historical value of the season. Will dozens of players lose a year of their prime? Will the year produce a “real” champion? Would a sprint season be a one-off considered as such? Would a late start to a full season be framed like any other regular season?
The amount of games is crucial. Major League Baseball has kicked around the idea of reducing the schedule in the past, but that idea is fraught with problems which could well be delivered this year. Trimming from 162 complicates year-over-year comparisons -- a beloved past time in any sport. The NBA, for instance, has altered its schedule layout as opposed to moving its anchor of 82 games. So, managing around the number, instead of altering it, becomes the preferred approach, especially for a sport so prideful of its wearing schedule.
In this case, time may not allow for 162 games. And, it’s not just the start date that puts the idea in peril. It’s also the end date. Think about the level of discussion around usage for the Nationals’ pitchers last season. They pitched all the way until Halloween. The appearances for Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin were extreme. They needed to rest for a month or longer before rebooting. If the season somehow started as early as June 1, the playoffs for a 162-game schedule would occur in November. Spring training would begin two months later. Which means a full schedule will reverberate beyond this year.
But, what if the schedule is 140 games, saving almost a month of play? What about 125? What about 81? Would a “sprint” champion be a legitimate one?
Scherzer views all of this as a new challenge. The oddity of the situation would be coupled with an onus on individual preparation, making, in his mind, a formula for a unique champion.
“I think you can go down a few games and get into the playoffs because whoever is going to win these games, that means as a team you’ve been staying ready,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington recently. “You’ve been preparing without a date and trying to fight your way to be able to get this. For me, whoever ends up getting into the playoffs and wins the whole World Series, you’ve earned it because everybody is in the exact same situation right now not knowing when we’re going to play, how many games we’re going to play. Everybody is handling this of their own accord. Whoever navigates this crisis the best, gets to be the champs.”
A reduced schedule means health is more important than ever. Trea Turner is hit by a pitch and breaks a finger? The season could be over.
The limited schedule also means a good start is more important than ever. Open 19-31? See you next February. No alcohol-fueled celebrations. No parades. No rings. No banner. No trophy.
Though, it does deliver intrigue. If the season was half as long, and every series was more and more important, how would that type of season feel? Probably similar to when the Nationals crept out of their abyss last season. One bad week could close the whole thing down, which picks the intensity up.
It also leaves the year as an outlier, one that will be written about with extra explanation and a shrug of acceptance because of the circumstances. A sprint would just be for fun. Something close to 162 games would make for a recognizable champion. If the Nationals won in a 140-game season, would it be fair to call them back-to-back champions? Maybe?
And, maybe it doesn’t matter. Perhaps any amount of games will do this year, in these circumstances, across this unprecedented time. Some baseball will be better than none, and any consternation about the framework could be pushed aside by the joy of a return. Maybe it’s that simple.
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