Column: Is MLB ready to play ball in more ways than one?

Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zimmerman will sit out the 2020 MLB season. Will the rest of the Nationals be able to finish the truncated 60-game season? (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Welcome to July, the start of the baseball season.

Later this month, “The Boys of Summer” may actually get to play this summer. At least that’s the plan, if the coronavirus pandemic can be contained. And that’s a big “if.”

If Major League Baseball does play, the usual 162-game marathon has been reduced to a 60-game sprint that represents the league’s shortest season since 1878.

The Nationals certainly can’t afford another 19-31 start like last year, when they were still six games under .500 at the 60-game mark. In 2020, there just wouldn’t be enough time to recover.

However, by missing nearly the first four months of this season, the Nats do have one thing in their favor: No World Series hangover.

Longtime Washington Post baseball writer Dave Sheinin believes a short season can actually help the Nats.

“It’s a veteran team that’s been through a long postseason,” he said.

“Last year, they were in what amounted to a postseason from the second half on. Every game was crucial to them, and that’s how this is gonna be this year. So, I think a team like the Nationals can benefit from that.”

However, Sheinin sees the teams in the two biggest markets that made the biggest offseason moves possibly reaching the World Series.

“It would be the same teams I would have thought at the beginning of the season,” he said.

“Certainly, the L.A. Dodgers bettered themselves as well as any team when they added Mookie Betts, and the Yankees added Gerrit Cole. That’s going to make them the best teams if they stay healthy. And, I don’t know if the reduced number of games matters that much.”

At the other end of the spectrum lie the Orioles, a team Sheinin covered for six losing years from 1999 to 2004 — and he is not a fan of their current teardown and rebuild.

“They know what they’re doing, based on what they did in Houston,” Sheinin said.

“It’s the same brain trust in Baltimore. I think teams like the A’s and the Rays show you that it does not have to happen this way.

You can still keep low payrolls and still compete and still win, even while semi-rebuilding. So, it didn’t have to be this way, but I also understand why they’re doing it.

It’s a choice the Orioles made. You just have to hope that at the end of these miserable years that there is gonna be a better day.”

Sheinin’s days of covering baseball will be harder this season, and probably in the foreseeable future. He knows access to players, coaches and managers will be very limited.

The media will have no clubhouse or personal access, as MLB tries to protect players from the coronavirus.

“So much of the art of reporting and being a beat writer is establishing relationships and establishing trust,” he said.

“It’s talking to players with your notebook in your back pocket and making a connection on a human level that benefits your reporting down the line.”

Sheinin said reporters won’t be able to write in-depth on stories.

“It’s going to hurt our industry and it’s going to hurt the fans. We’re the conduit to the fan,” he said.

Sheinin said good stories need a depth of humanity, “that you only get by establishing those relationships and putting the time in face-to-face. If that’s gone, the fans are going to suffer as well.”

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A short season will be followed by a rocky one

The coronavirus pandemic stopped play before it could get started, and negotiations to get it up and running actually brought it to a standstill.

Commissioner Rob Manfred took the only action he had left: impose the number of games.

Sheinin sees that leaving a bad taste for the next labor negotiation after the 2021 season.

“There’s no way around it. This is a terrible time for this to happen,” he said.

“It would be a terrible time at any point, but coming off this completely devastated economic landscape, a free agency market this winter that could get really ugly.

Teams are coming off huge losses this year, and we still don’t know what it’s going to look like next year in terms of fans being back in the stadiums. So, 2021 sets up as an epic labor war.”

Also, Sheinin has this warning: “We’re not at the end of a phase here, we’re really at the beginning of a two-plus year labor war that is just getting started.”

So, baseball is not only fighting a pandemic, but also itself.

Enjoy the season. It may be short, but hopefully, it’s sweet.

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