Baseball's new normal: Empty seats, virtual fans, new rules

Jay Busbee
·4-min read
This is weird. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
This is weird. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

[This is an excerpt from Yahoo Sports’ free morning newsletter. Tap here to get the best sports news in your inbox every morning.]

Morning, folks! For the time since 2019 … we had real baseball this past weekend.

“America’s Pastime” isn’t really America’s pastime anymore. The NFL, the NBA and brawling on social media all have more of a claim to the term than baseball does. Still, there’s something about the rhythms of a baseball season — starting when the air gets warm, carrying us through the long days of summer, finishing out just as the weather turns — that just fits. Missing that this spring was a minor element of the whole pandemic, but a painful one nonetheless.

But now, baseball’s back, and just as the sport has returned to a changed America, it’s come back in a different form. Like soccer, it’s trying to navigate the challenges of social distancing in a team sport. Like the NFL, its off-field issues very nearly derailed the entire season. And like the NBA and college sports, it’s trying to operate in a bubble that’s all too easy to burst. [Update: It’s very close to doing just that.]

Is it wise to be playing baseball in a pandemic? That’s an irrelevant question now. It’s happening, like it or not. The challenge now is keeping everyone involved as safe as possible. Wise or not, we’re out in open water. And here are some observations on just how different a sport we have now.

  • The piped-in crowd noise worked for me. Like golf, baseball works just fine when you’re half-watching it, and the crowd noise is perfect for that. Matter of fact, as I write this, the Braves are pasting the Mets 9-1 in New York, and the “home crowd” is appropriately muted. (Considering how pathetic the Mets look, the “home crowd” ought to have a whole lot more dockworker-level cursing, but you can understand why that wouldn’t be possible.)

  • On the other hand, despite my pleas, it turns out that virtual fans really kind of stink. They’re not present in every shot, just wide ones, and they look a lot less vibrant than, say, armies charging across an alien landscape. Cutouts do the job just fine, even if sometimes they make for good targets.

  • The new rules take a little getting used to. Pitchers aren’t batting in the National League anymore, which I always liked just because it kept a pitcher from getting too brave throwing brushbacks at the other team. On a larger scale, the new extra-innings rule aimed at getting games over faster has brought immediate results; turns out that starting an inning with a man on second base does in fact pick up the pace.

  • Oh, and there’s now a pronounced social justice component too. For the first time in baseball history, multiple teams and players, including members of the Yankees, Giants, White Sox and Nationals, knelt to support social justice causes. Given the ever-closer intertwining of sports and social justice, it’s likely we’ll see much more of that across all sports leagues in the coming months.

Thing is, all of this is fragile as a chandelier in a hurricane. The most crucial element of the season remains yet to be determined. That is: how will positive tests affect teams as a whole? We’ve already seen players from the Marlins, Braves, Reds and Nationals test positive right before, and even after, the start of the season. How will baseball track the spread and contain outbreaks? The answer to that question will determine how the rest of this season goes.

When — let’s be hopeful and say “when,” not “if” — the season winds to its all-too-soon conclusion, we’ll see yet another change: an expanded playoff that includes eight teams from each league. That means more fan interest, more postseason baseball, more money.

Meantime, let’s take the briefest of moments to enjoy this one scenario: it’s almost August, and every single team in the league is within one game of first place.

[For the best sports news delivered right to your email inbox every weekday morning, free, subscribe to the Yahoo Sports newsletter here.]

_____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

More from Yahoo Sports: