Before the coronavirus pandemic struck the nation and the world out in earnest in March, it looked as though the worst 2020 baseball would face was its worst cheating scandals since 1919-1920. As the year the world couldn’t wait to finish wound down, the worst baseball faced was a testily silent free agency market, the continuing attempted murder of the minor leagues, and questions as to when the 2021 season would or wouldn’t begin.
That was once upon a time: Sparky Anderson, Hall of Fame manager and doyen of the double negative: We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it. This is now: Commissioner Rob Manfred, who can’t do one right thing without doing ten wrong, inclining to keep some of the more ridiculous experiments of the pandemic-truncated season while dickering on the one he should keep: the universal designated hitter.
Otherwise, if 2020 baseball were to be a television series, it might be called Alfred Hitchcock Presents the Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone.
That was once upon a time: Nobody even thought of a postseason that included teams fighting to the last breath to finish . . . in second place. This was this year: The thrills and chills watching teams fight to the last breath to reach the postseason finishing . . . in as far down as fourth place. (The Milwaukee Brewers, in the National League Central.)
That was once upon a time, too: It would have been easier to pass the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle than to even think about teams with losing records reaching the postseason at all, never mind the prospect of reaching the World Series. This was this year: The aforesaid Brewers (29-31) and the Houston Astros (29-31) made a losers’ Series possible, if only briefly. The good news: The Brewers got waxed two straight in a best-of-three wild card set by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The bad news: The Astros, perhaps the most hated team in baseball this year, managed to get all the way to the American League Championship Series, but no further.
That was once upon a time, further: The Dodgers winning the World Series during the final year of the Reagan Administration. This was this year: The Dodgers winning the World Series during the final year of the Trump reign of error. It only took the Dodgers the same number of years to return to the Promised Land as the retired uniform number of the greatest pitcher in franchise history—32. They beat a plucky, fun-looking collection of bargain-basement Tampa Bay Rays whose wounding flaw, exploited deftly by a deft pitching staff and acrobatic defense equal to the Rays’ own, finally came to terrible light except for that surrealistic comedy of errors that ended Game Four: their weakness at hitting with men on base.
To think that 2020 began with the worst thing on baseball’s plate being the worst cheating scandal since 1919-1920. That was way back then: members of the Chicago White Sox cheating to lose a World Series for gamblers’ payoffs promised but not completely consummated. This was now: the Astros disciplined rather mildly for having operated an illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing system in all 2017 and part of 2018. And, the Boston Red Sox having treated their MLB-installed video replay room (all teams have them) the way teenagers treat the liquor cabinet when Mom and Dad are foolish enough to go away for the weekend and leave them the keys.
Back-to-back World Series championships tainted. The Astros losing a couple of high draft picks while firing a manager plus the general manager whose fostering of an unapologetic, human relations be cheap, winning uber alles organisational culture included seeking ways to cheat technologically that fostered the Astrogate operation. The Red Sox firing the video room operator who abetted the kids in the liquor cabinet and their manager—though they re-hired the same manager after the irregular season ended. Their 21st century success must have the Red Sox thinking they can tempt more gods than the law allows.
That was spring training before the pandemic suspended baseball: the Astros were either apologetically unapologetic or unapologetically apologetic for their Astro Intelligence Agency, outraging most around the game and inspiring threats of retribution on the field. This was the delayed, irregular season: abetted by their inability (or unwillingness) to re-sign its franchise player and shore up a pitching staff, the Red Sox learned the hard way what a bitch karma can be: they finished with baseball’s second-worst irregular season record. (They were saved from complete ignominy by the Pittsburgh Pirates.)
The Dodgers said thank you very much to the Red Sox. What the Red Sox declined, the Dodgers gained in the off-season’s most significant trade. The Mookie Monster turned out to be a smash hit regular and postseason. When he wasn’t blasting timely hits, he performed like a one-man version of the 1969 Mets in right field. Maybe not enough to keep his new teammate Corey Seager from winning the National League Championship Series and the World Series most valuable player awards. But we’re sure he’ll settle happily for being Sports Illustrated’s Player of the Year.
That was baseball in suspended animation: The owners attempting to renege on an agreement to pay players full pro-rated salaries for the season whenever it might begin. This was baseball 2020 at last: a three-week “summer camp” and a sixty-game irregular season—which opened with enough COVID-19 scares to cause schedule shifts comparable to sidewalk games in which you weren’t even sure there was a pea under one of the three shells. A couple of them even had Commissioner Nero pondering whether to shut down a season that maybe shouldn’t have begun in the first place.
That was summer camp: Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman fearing for his life when he was hit with COVID-19. This was the off-season: Freeman was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. There wasn’t a jury in the world who’d have convicted him for celebrating and everyone else in baseball for agreeing the award couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
A long broadcasting career thrust into limbo. That was then, early in the season: Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman intoning that 1980s long-ball legend Jack (The Ripper) Clark was dead. (False.) This was later in the season: Brennaman was caught by an unexpectedly live microphone, before resuming his call of the game, referring to an otherwise-unnamed “f@g capital.” He apologised on the air while calling a home run. Oops. Season over for Brennaman. Career still in limbo.
That was early in the irregular season: Numerous players and teams protested silently but emphatically on single knees—and, in the case of Dominic Smith, New York Mets first baseman/designated hitter, tearfully and poignantly—over police killings of unarmed or un-resisting black suspects. This was mid-December: The Show’s government emphatically declared, postseason, dammit the Negro Leagues were major leagues after all. Nice of it to notice what we all knew damn well in our hearts, minds, and hips, for decades preceding.
Will the Show and other professional baseball leagues—those left standing when baseball government finally finishes stripping the minors—reach out to make more black players, coaches, and executives feel welcome?
And will someone, anyone, whether among the players’ union or maybe an enterprising and conscience-blessed owner, finally move to redress that little matter of 618 pre-1980, short-career major leaguers still frozen unconscionably out of the 1980 pension re-alignment?
Truly inquiring minds will always want to know.
This was also the irregular season:
Aaron Judge (Yankees) nailed the season’s first official hit, Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees) nailed its first official home run, and Juan Soto (Nationals) was missing in action thanks to a positive COVID-19 test. The good news: Soto recovered and went on win what you might call the Quadruple Crown: he led the National League in hitting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.
The Miami Marlins survived a COVID outbreak and scare and 167 roster moves in two months to finish second in the National League East.
Texas Rangers pitcher James Jones was quarantined for COVID in April, tripped over his young son’s toy at home, and tore his knee’s patellar tendon to cost himself whatever the 2020 season would be.
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher (and erstwhile Met) Zack Wheeler tore a fingernail trying to don a pair of jeans, costing him nine days between starts in September. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure you should expect him to endorse Levi’s any time soon.
Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger hit what proved the game-winning home run in Game Seven, National League Championship Series . . . and suffered a dislocated shoulder when teammate Enrique Hernandez celebrated with him a little too hard.
Chicago Cubs Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Jason Heyward combined to hit six home runs in Wrigley Field . . . all season long. Chicago White Sox Jose Abreu hit six home runs in Wrigley Field . . . in a single series.
Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager picked up a late July hit with the bases loaded—and got no runs batted in. The ball hit his teammate Chris Taylor on the basepath, meaning an out and inning over.
Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes needed a mere 804 days to hit three home runs in three straight days—then left the team over further health concerns.
Nick Castellano’s first series in Comerica Park as a former Detroit Tiger included hitting two homers in a single game against them. You never did that for us, you bum you!
Tigers pitcher Tyler Alexander accomplished something never done by Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan, but done once by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—striking nine straight batters out, in an early August game.
Home runs and/or foul balls hit numerous cutout figures in the stands, including but not limited to Mets outfielder/infielder Jeff McNeil’s dog and a teddy bear perched in a seat beyond the left field foul pole in the Oakland Coliseum. Right in the snoot.
The first ten 2020 starts for Braves pitcher Max Fried: no home runs surrendered. Start number eleven: back-to-back home runs surrendered. He’s not liable to be invited to shoot at the craps table any time soon.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Derek Holland on 8 August: four home runs surrendered before he recorded a single out. Everyone else: Oy! Pirates fans: It figures.
Jacob deGrom, the Mets’ defending Cy Young Award winner, went fishing in August: he pitched against no one but the Marlins in August thanks to bizarre pandemic-inspired scheduling. The Marlins won’t complain if they don’t see him again for a full year: they got four earned runs over the four deGrom starts. DeGrom’s four straight against the same team hadn’t been seen in 91 years, since Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons.
Mets first baseman Pete Alonso set the rookie home run record in 2019 without hitting a single game-ending blast. Bottom of the tenth vs. the Yankees in Citi Field on 3 September: Alonso bats with the free cookie on second to open . . . and hits one out to win it.
In the top of that tenth: The free cookie on second didn’t do the Yankees any good—a line drive double play and a strikeout, to set up Alonso’s finisher.
Will Smith (Dodgers) homered off Will Smith (Braves), Game Five, National League Championship Series.
The pandemically-inspired ballpark shiftings for safety’s sake meant that the Dodgers hit more home runs in the new Globe Life Field (34 in nineteen games) than the regular-tenant Texas Rangers (27 in thirty games) did. Don’t ask.
Braves reliever Mark Melancon surrendered one less home run all year than he caught in the bullpen in the NLCS.
Brett Phillips, Rays last man on the bench: No hits in a month, no game-ending hits ever, no plate appearances in two and a half weeks. Two outs, two strikes, bottom of the ninth, Game Four of the World Series: Base hit, two Dodger errors, tying run home, then Randy Arozarena—the Rays’ postseason bombardier par excellence—diving home and slapping the plate nine times for emphasis with the winning run.
Country Joe West—it’s said that he’s one of the greatest umpires since the invention of the job but nobody’s inclined to agree with him—ejected Nationals GM Mike Rizzo for arguing balls and strikes . . . from the second deck of the ballpark. At the rate he’s going, West just might eject an owner from his team’s executive offices.
Seven Hall of Famers—Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro—were called home to the Elysian Fields. If the Modern Era Committee elects Dick Allen to the Hall of Fame at last, that’ll make eight. (Allen died in December.) No wonder even the most devoted baseball fans ended the year saying too much was enough already.
Always remember Andujar’s Law: In baseball, there’s just one word: you never know. Too often, as in pandemic 2020, that’s the scary part.