WASHINGTON -- Game 1 has oscillated from unlikely to here, a four-month journey which included arguments, doubts and exasperation.
But, Thursday night is set to begin the 2020 version of Major League Baseball. If, of course, the heated downpours of recent days don’t materialize. Thunderstorms are projected to be scattered throughout the day. Whether they will cooperate for a 7:08 p.m. first pitch remains in question, just like much of the 60-game Major League Baseball season.
If the rain fails to arrive or reroutes itself, a tenuous experiment will begin to unfold when the defending World Series champions, the Washington Nationals, host one of the most loved and loathed organizations in sports, the New York Yankees.
Together, they are staring at a chance for small joys. Major League Baseball is set to be the first of the four major North American pro sports to return to official play. The league’s testing processes have been cleaned up. An outbreak is yet to occur. The hard part is next. But, first is a modicum of pleasure in an otherwise downtrodden year.
“Not only for us, a game, but the first game, nationally televised [on Thursday],” Davey Martinez said. “That’s exciting for all of us. Long time coming. We prepared ourselves earlier in March, had to get shut down, we came back and here we are ready to go again for Opening Day. A memorable Opening Day.
“It’s an honor to be the first game being played. The season, I know things up to this point, was difficult with all the new changes and stuff. The players have done well with it. We’ve been positive, telling them every team’s going through the same thing, so we’ve got to stay positive, we’ve got to pull for each other and we’re going to get through this together.”
Martinez’s first Opening Day in the big leagues came when he was 22 years old. He went 0-for-2 for the Chicago Cubs against the rival St. Louis Cardinals in 1987. Fourteen seasons followed. Numerous other Opening Days arrived when he started his coaching career with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, 47, has not known a year without Opening Day. His father, Bob, now an assistant general manager and vice president of player development for the Nationals, began his major-league career in 1972, the year before Aaron was born. This day is expected. It’s not optional. It never could be conceived as in jeopardy. Yet it was in 2020, first because of the coronavirus pandemic, then because of combativeness between the league and players union
“Opening Day has been a part of my life, my entire life,” Boone said. “It’s all I know. It’s one of the holidays of the year for me and my family. It’s a privilege to be a part of a major league Opening Day. That will be the case again [Thursday] night in as unique of circumstances as I’ve ever experienced, probably. In my mind, there’s something great about Opening Day, albeit this year in July, that is important to celebrate and appreciate. While we’re desperately trying to go out and get a victory and win the game, and play well, I do think it’s important to celebrate that day as a sport and as a country.”
The last line is indicative of how Major League Baseball has hoped its return would be perceived. Back is the national pastime, a salve in a time of illness and unrest. Baseball to the rescue, as much as it could be to those who are currently concerned with its resumption.
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Viewers will see masks, Black Live Matter logos and social distancing when it starts. The Yankees’ bench players will situate themselves in new blue tents in the stands. The Nationals players will do the same. If it rains, prompting the closure of the large, sliding windows in the Nationals Park press box, reporters will have to relocate to the 300 level of the stadium to the picnic tables. Only 35 will be allowed inside to begin with. This is not an average night. It’s one everyone wants to kick to history with hope it is never to be repeated.
“I think the significance of it has kind of been in the back of our mind the whole time,” Sean Doolittle said. “These last three weeks, there’s been kind of an adapting to a new normal, so to speak, as we continue to get used to playing baseball in this space -- wearing masks in the weight room and the training room and distancing and staggering all of our schedules so we don’t overlap too much.
“I think that’s one of the hopes for our season, was that we could be an example not just to other sports leagues but to the general public or other large corporations about what it’s going to take to keep your employees and their families safe during the pandemic, and how do we adapt, as long as we don’t have a vaccine, what kind of measures do we have to do take to continue to move forward?”
Both Boone and Martinez separately uttered the same phrase when discussing Thursday’s start: Long time coming. It’s unclear if playing a Major League Baseball season in the middle of a pandemic is a good idea. It’s also unclear if it’s a concept that can hold day after day, game after game, city after city. Step one is Thursday night, a moment and a chance baseball has been waiting for.
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