Watching MLB in 2020 Is Going to Be Weird

Watching baseball, like everything else in 2020, has a new normal.
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Did you hear? Baseball is back. 

It may not be what you dreamed of, but Thursday night's two games offered a window into what it will be like to be an MLB fan in 2020. There was a lot to soak in (like that rain pun), from fan-less player introductions to weird interjections of fake crowd noise to lightning striking behind the commissioner. It was a jarring experience, to be sure.

Three cogs of SI's MLB staff–Emma Baccellieri, Connor Grossman and Matt Martell–offered their thoughts on what we learned about watching baseball in 2020 based on Opening Night.

• Somehow, trying to keep tradition alive further underscored how bizarre this season is going to be. Before a tremendous display of unity between the Yankees and Nationals, in which every player took a knee prior to the National Anthem, the Nationals and Yankees were announced player-by-player like a typical Opening Day. But hearing Washington’s P.A. announcer scream TRRREEEEAAA TURRRRNNERRRRR into an empty abyss felt very off putting. The massive ovation never came. – Connor Grossman

• After an afternoon full of MLB surprises that ranged from weird to unfortunate—Juan Soto’s positive test for COVID-19, Clayton Kershaw’s last-minute trip to the IL, the expanded playoffs, the continued homelessness of the Blue Jays—it is nice to have a surprise that’s just baseball. Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole each giving up a home run in the first inning! “You can’t predict baseball” can once again apply to something other than the particulars of infectious disease. – Emma Baccellieri

• Will any non-Astros player benefit from playing in empty ballparks more than Giancarlo Stanton? Following two underwhelming seasons to start his Yankees career, Stanton crushed a 459-foot two-run blast off Max Scherzer in his first at-bat of 2020. Of course, he’ll say that he doesn’t let the boos and taunts bother him, but hitting Scherzer is tough enough without worrying about facing the wrath of Yankees fans upon returning to the Bronx. – Matt Martell

• The early returns on TV presentation are … not good. In watching and listening to a few summer camp games, I found the constant (artificial) hum of the crowd comforting. ESPN (or perhaps the Nationals) seems only to include crowd noise–a jarring splash of it–after a positive Nationals play. I prefer the perpetual murmur to the sporadic roar–a clause that could only be written in 2020. – C.G.

• Like Connor, I’m not a huge fan of the way the fake cheers have been deployed. I enjoyed the experience of the summer camp games, for the most part, but this seems more forced—too quiet until it’s suddenly too loud. I’m Team Steady Buzz over Team… Whatever This Is. Is it a huge deal? No. But it’s noticeable, especially when the approaching thunder is more engaging than the crowd noise. – E.B.

• I’m also thoroughly disappointed I didn’t hear Max Scherzer grunting. Figured the lack of fans would make that happen more frequently. I was looking forward to hearing game-day chatter from the players. Instead, we got random loud noises and Alex Rodriguez. – M.M.

• To have the first game back shortened by a ghastly rainstorm is a bit too on the nose. But the image of Commissioner Manfred speaking as lightning strikes over his shoulder just before everyone has to be called off the field is, er, evocative. – E.B.

• Speaking of the rainout, Gerrit Cole’s Yankees debut was cut short after just five innings. He allowed one hit, Adam Eaton’s first-inning solo home run, one walk, one hit batsman and struck out five, throwing 75 pitches. That’s a promising start to the next nine years of his career. – M.M.

• I think the pregame ceremonies were well-done—both games featured videos of black players speaking on racism, followed by a message about social injustice narrated by Morgan Freeman while the teams knelt and held a black ribbon together. While everyone decided to rise after that to stand for the anthem in D.C., however, there were several who decided to stay kneeling in LA. For the Giants, there were nine players and manager Gabe Kapler. But it was the image from across the infield that was particularly striking—Mookie Betts, before his first regular-season game with the Dodgers, on the day after he signed the monster contract that solidified his place as one of the faces of the game, kneeling by himself. – E.B.

• Opening Day 2020 was all about irony: the Yankees-Nationals game was called with one out in the top of the sixth inning after a rain delay; there was a lightning strike that flashed behind Rob Manfred’s head on the broadcast; Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer both threw complete games in their first start of the season (technically); ESPN was in a commercial break when the Giants-Dodgers game started. The most unfortunate examples of these, though, were the Clayton Kershaw commercials during the Dodgers game. Instead of starting his ninth Opening Day, as he was supposed to, Kershaw was placed on the injured list hours before first pitch. Too late to break out new baseball-themed ads to debut on Opening Night, we had to face the semi-frequent reminder that the aging Kershaw with a perpetually bad back, like the rest of life in 2020, is the new normal. – M.M.

• Department of Things That I Didn’t Even Realize I Missed: quirky deliveries! The Giants blessed us Thursday with both Johnny Cueto’s trademark kickstand pause and Tyler Rogers’s submarine motion. – E.B.

• There may not have been fans at Dodger Stadium Thursday night, but somehow a birthday balloon floated onto the field while Cody Bellinger hit in the eighth inning. If only the Giants came back in the top of the ninth. So much for the legend of the Rally Balloon. – M.M.

• Allow me to veer off-course and use this space to vent that pitchers who "complete" a rain-shortened game should not get credit for a complete game. A no-hitter is only a no-hitter if it goes (at least) nine innings. Why shouldn’t complete games be the same way? Also, get off my lawn. – C.G.

• Opening Night didn't feel “normal”; it was never going to feel normal, and if it did, you’d have to question what it was ignoring in order to do so. You can’t miss the empty stadiums or the face masks or the awkward spots in the long-distance broadcasts. It’s different! But just because it’s not normal doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s still baseball. And while neither of these games were exactly thrillers, both were full of reminders of what makes all of this so fun: the joy of some good base-running, or a ball roped down the line, or a play at the plate. The context is still uncomfortable; the whole endeavor’s pretty fraught. But inside that context—this has been nice. — E.B.