Opinion: Play ball! Major League Baseball's return signals the long-awaited return of big-time, big-league sports
This is the week we’ve been waiting for since mid-March, sports fans.
I know the calendar says that was only four months ago, but in pandemic time, it’s felt like roughly 7,342,183 years.
Give or take a few years, anyway.
When the sports world first shut down for the coronavirus, we hoped there would only be a short delay before the games resumed. Maybe a few weeks. A month or two at the worst. But of course, as the seriousness of the situation became clearer and grimmer, we knew the wait would be longer.
But this week, the first of North America’s big four professional leagues makes its return. Major League Baseball will open its shortened regular season with a pair of marquee games Thursday night, Yankees at Nationals and Giants at Dodgers, and then Friday will feature a full slate of games.
Within the week of baseball’s return, the NHL and the NBA will resume their regular seasons, too.
The return of the big four doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Not by a long shot. If you need a reminder of that, Yankee outfielder Clint Frazier and Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius both hit home runs during exhibition games Saturday while wearing face masks.
If they can bomb homers wearing a mask, surely you can wear one while getting groceries.
Big-time, major-league team sports are going to be different in their returns. Having no fans in the stands will look different. Sound different. Feel different. All of that.
Then again, hasn't everything changed nowadays?
Having games back will provide some normalcy.
There’s skepticism, of course, about whether the games will last. Can Major League Baseball avoid a COVID-19 outbreak as its teams travel from city to city for games? Truthfully, that’s a concern for the NBA and the NHL, too, even though they are using hub cities and creating bubbles.
It’s possible that leagues may have to suspend operations again or (gulp) shut down completely.
But maybe there’s hope for the big four.
Other North American pro sports have returned to action, and while there have been hiccups, there have been no suspensions or stoppages of play. Even as the coronavirus is surging in nearly every state, the games have been able to continue.
NASCAR and the PGA Tour have had the longest runs during the pandemic. Because of the insular nature of both sports — there is minimal person-to-person contact and almost no sharing of equipment — they were able to restart earlier.
Mind you, neither has gone untouched by COVID-19. Several golfers have withdrawn from tournaments after testing positive, and Jimmie Johnson, one of NASCAR’s superstars, missed time after a positive test. But rounds and races have continued in both sports.
The first professional league involving team sports to resume was the National Women’s Soccer League. It opted to turn its entire season into a World Cup-style tournament in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. The Challenge Cup began June 27.
Like NASCAR and the PGA Tour, the NWSL has had rocky moments — Orlando Pride withdrew before play began after six players and four staffers tested positive for COVID-19 — the weeks since have been smooth.
The tournament is in its stretch run with the semifinals Wednesday and the finals Sunday.
The MLS is back, too.
That’s actually the name the soccer league gave its return-to-play format. The MLS is Back Tournament is largely the same as the NWSL’s tournament-in-a-bubble format, and just like the NWSL, the MLS had a team that had to go home before the competition started. FC Dallas had nine players test positive and decided to withdraw.
Since then, though, it’s been all systems go.
None of that is a guarantee Major League Baseball, the NHL or the NBA will go without a hitch. Same goes for the WNBA, which has set up its own bubble in Bradenton, Fla., just south of Tampa and will start play Saturday.
Uncertainty will hang over all leagues.
Then again, uncertainty has become a way of life in our sports world. Will college football happen this fall? What about other college sports? What about high school sports? And for crying out loud, what about the NFL?
The league that had the most time to figure out playing in a pandemic is flying blindly into training camps with no real plan for testing or playing or anything.
Not exactly a good sign for the NFL.
But even with all the unknowns, we stand at the beginning of a new week able to proclaim for the first time in a long time that there are real, live games from one of the big-four pro leagues on the schedule this week.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.