By Jack Belanger
For the first time since sports across the country were canceled, Americans will finally get to watch one of the “Big Four” sports leagues once again. After months of painful negotiations between the players and owners, Major League Baseball will open its season Thursday when the New York Yankees will face off against the defending World Series champions Washington Nationals.
While the league failed to capitalize on starting the season sooner, there is still plenty of baseball to watch. The messy negotiations may have hurt the sport in the popularity category (another argument for another day) but to celebrate the new season I thought I would give five reasons why people should pay attention.
- Increased Importance of Each Game
Part of what makes each NFL season so exciting is the importance of each game for a team’s success. Any four game stretch can make-or-break a team’s playoff chances. A normal 162-game season diminishes the value of a single game. With the season shrinking to 60 games, every team will want to avoid a slow start out of the gates. Having a poor first two weeks could put any team on the outskirts of contention.
If no one separates themselves early on, a lot of teams could be within striking distance of the playoffs all the way until the final week. Imagine the intensity of having five teams going into the last few games with the chance for the final wildcard spot. This might be the first year MLB has to use tie-breakers much like the NFL.
- Change in Strategy
Piggy-backing of the importance of each game, managers will have to carry a new burden of carrying a win-now mindset. Over a 162-game season, a manager’s decisions are often overlooked and do not face intense scrutiny. Since a single game doesn’t ruin the entire season, a manager can afford to not to win every game at any cost. It is not until the playoffs where a manager must make risky decisions when the game is on the line. If a pitcher walks two guys in the early innings, will managers let them work through the jam? Or will they pull their starter at the first sight of trouble?
On the offensive side, modern-day analytics have slowly phased out plays such as bunting and stealing since the risk of giving away an out is not worth the reward of getting a man into scoring position. While this philosophy works over a long-stretch of games, in the final few weeks of the season, playing “small-ball” could change the outcome in key games.
- Potential Milestones
While single-season records are safe for another season and some milestones may be out of reach with fewer games, there are still plenty of games for players to move up on the record charts. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Zack Greinke are all in the top-30 for career strikeout leaders. With every start means a chance to pass some of baseball’s greatest hurlers in the record book. Clayton Kershaw is only 36 strikeouts away from 2500 for his career. Miguel Cabrera is currently at 2815 hits for his storied career. While 3000 may be out of reach this season, he has the chance to move into the top-50 of all time and has the chance to pass legends such as Ivan Rodriguez and Babe Ruth. Cabrera also sits 23 home runs shy of the coveted 500 during his career. Albert Pujols needs just five home runs to take sole possession for fifth place on the all-time career list. Mike Trout, arguably the best baseball player right now, is only 15 home runs shy of 300, which would make him the 11th player ever to do so by the end of their age-28 season.
- Return to Normalcy
What is summer without baseball? From the end of June to the end of August, the MLB is the only major sports league broadcasting regular season games. It is truly fitting that baseball is the first major U.S. sport to return to play, a positive sign as the country attempts to safely reopen. While football has replaced baseball as America’s pastime, it has been the latter that has helped the country get through some of its hardest times.
During World War ll when many baseball players got drafted into the military, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was created to keep baseball in the public eye and provide Americans with another competitive baseball league. The Yankees’ run in the 2001 postseason weeks after 9/11 helped Americans recover with the tragedy and give them a sense that things could return to normal. One of the most iconic images of the series was when President George W. Bush gave a thumbs-up to the crowd at Yankee Stadium before Game 3.
- A Good Reason to Stay Home
Ever since the country shutdown when the virus first broke out in March, Americans have been itching to get out of the house for just about any reason. You can only rewatch the same T.V. so many times. Yes NASCAR and soccer have been going on for weeks now but, neither have the same mass appeal across the country like baseball does. Maybe with more live sports on the way, more Americans will choose to stay at home more often than risk spreading the virus.
For baseball fans, just being able to watch their favorite sport again is enough to tune into the games. For those who wait until the playoffs to tune into a game, this season could offer something new in terms of intensity, style of play, new rules and the shortened season. While basketball season may be just a few weeks away, sports fans should take advantage of taking in some baseball games before NBA comes back on the airwaves.