ST. LOUIS — Happy Opening Day in St. Louis, folks. Welcome back to the land of the living, Major League Baseball. Oh, have we missed you since your departure all the way back in October.
Things may look different for the Cardinals and their fans as baseball unveils its "Young Frankenstein" of a season: 60 games followed by a playoff format that will include an NHL-like 16 teams. Wildcard matchups will no longer be do or die games, instead turning into a best of three series. The 2020 season plans to extend its stay later in the calendar year, that is if COVID allows it.
Downtown will carry a more sobering feel on this Friday opening night. A sea of red will be watching the game, but this year it will just be the red seats observing. Fans will be across the street in Ballpark Village or hovering outside. It'll be like listening to a concert outside the stadium. There are extended dugouts and fake sounds coming from the loudspeakers.
Remember Bob Yecker's Harry Doyle in "Major League" creating fake crowd noise to pump up the few thousand fans. Dan McLaughlin may not try that on the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast, but he will be finding new and interesting ways to enliven the audience.
Players will do their best to avoid mass celebrations, if that's even possible. I don't think Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong will execute a "Demolition Man" type hand waving greeting at home plate, but you never know. Things will be weird and probably just get weirder as August arrives and stretches its legs.
With that said, baseball is back, and I am happy. It's been a long 266 days since a real game took place. The Washington Nationals sealed their first championship in thrilling fashion, taking Game 7 in home of the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros, with no clanking trash can lids able to stop Max Scherzer and company blaze through them. The game returned with Scherzer pitching against the Yankees Thursday night.
Baseball is the kind of game you can draw up new rules and regulations for, yet it will still feel the same. Nine players will take the field with the mission of trying to stop the other nine guys from scoring more runs. Pitchers will work one full time job instead of two on their rotational turns. The designated hitter will make its debut in the National League, but the pitcher can still get rid of him with a sweeping slider.
Speaking of world-altering sliders, Carlos Martinez is back in the rotation, buckling knees and getting "wow" reactions from opposing players. They have to see him in the first inning instead of the ninth this season. Sorry, not sorry.
Yadier Molina will catch the first pitch on Opening Day for the 16th consecutive season, breaking the all-time record. Adam Wainwright will play catch with him this weekend for the 15th straight season. Matt Carpenter begins his redemption story. Dexter Fowler and Harrison Bader will feel the heat of Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson on their back before the season is even 15 days long.
Competition takes a whole new shape this season. Mike Shildt won't be able to stick with a player for too long. The hot hand will be rode only while it's sizzling hot, and not just lukewarm. He'll have to make tough calls every night. With the season coming in 102 games lighter in 2020, fundamental mistakes by players and lapses in judgement by the manager can't happen.
I'll take it. Baseball is a good time no matter how it looks or how long it stays. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that expectations should be adjusted. Take what you can get. If baseball is the only sport, I get back this year, I can accept that. Beggars can't be choosers this time.
The Cardinals should, at the very least, make the wildcard round. The non-terrible teams all should. St. Louis' issues will come if the lineup can't produce enough runs, and the new bullpen alignment falls through. Due to issues getting over to the states, Giovanny Gallegos isn't on the Opening Day roster. Jordan Hicks and John Brebbia won't throw a pitch in 2020, and the projected starting outfield accounted for 3.3 fWAR in 2019. That's the total WAR for all three outfielders combined! If that's not alarming, what is?!
There are new faces out there this year. Kodi Whitley, Edmundo Sosa, and Austin Dean are on the active roster, which includes three catchers as well. The regulars should make the infield a steel trap on defense, and that includes a run-saving Matt Carpenter at third base. Jack Flaherty will be throwing strikes tonight. That's always a guarantee. The new closer, Kwang Hyun Kim, looked good this week but lacks any MLB experience, so there's some sweet and bitter appeal there. Paul DeJong is swinging the bat with authority, like a guy trying to make people forget his 2019 second half swoon. The team has question marks but is also marked with potency in important areas.
Again, baseball is back, and we should all be thankful. I hope the players who want to take a knee do just that. I want true colors, not robotic ballplayers. One of the best things about athletes is their individuality, the thing that sets them apart. A team player can still make their own choices. This is what makes them human. "Black Lives Matter" will be stenciled into the pitching mound, making the message pretty clear from this part of the Midwest.
2020 has brought plenty of hardship. Some of the pain is endless and the madness isn't done swinging just yet. Baseball will help that. It eases the pain in a way that no other sport can accomplish. There's no clock, just pitches, catches, and balls put into play. Things may seem faster, but the eccentricities of the game remain.
The complex yet thrilling moments will take place. Backdoor sliders. Two-seam fastballs running middle-middle on a hitter. Walk-off blasts inducing bat flips, singles being taken away or extended into improbable doubles. A player stretching a double into the gap into a triple. Nights of heartbreak, days of joy, and the usual roller coaster of tears and fears blended into a smaller yet tighter concoction.
As Jon Hamm narrates in the video above: "Welcome back, old friend. It's good to see you."
Good to see you indeed, baseball. We've missed your endless array of summer magic. Things haven't been right without you. You have every right to drive me nuts for a few months. It's about time you took away a few of my evenings.
A more somber Opening Day in St. Louis can't hide the magic and beauty of baseball.
Thanks for reading.
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- Yadier Molina is set to make opening day history on Friday
- Cardinals say they're unified, and will support Black Lives Matter on Opening Day