NEW YORK – The World Series champion Washington Nationals stood six feet apart along the first base line and watched as a banner commemorating their title was raised, then took a knee alongside the New York Yankees in a call for social justice.
Star slugger Juan Soto wasn’t there — he was flagged hours before the first pitch for COVID-19. Neither, of course, were any fans.
Hardly ideal, but there was hardball nonetheless.
“I’d rather be playing baseball than not,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said.
Major League Baseball returned to action this weekend with a flourish of highs and lows as the sport attempts to play a 60-game regular season amid a coronavirus pandemic still plaguing much of the United States.
The baseball itself was a breath of fresh air — even through all those face coverings.
Opening day gems from Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber and Kyle Hendricks. A mesmerizing home run from Giancarlo Stanton. Deft baserunning by Lorenzo Cain that baffled the entire Cubs infield.
But COVID-era baseball has been unmistakably different.
Cardboard cutouts of fans, managers arguing with umpires through face masks, air fives after home runs — not to mention a stream of players put on the coronavirus injured list, including potential outbreaks within the Marlins and Reds clubhouses.
The 60-game sprint started with a bang — thunder, actually, along with a torrential downpour in the rain-shortened opener between the Yankees and Nationals. Despite that, it was the sport’s most-watched regular season game in nine years.
Later that night, Mookie Betts made his Dodgers debut in Los Angeles, one day after signing a $365 million, 12-year deal to stay there through 2032.
Among Betts' first acts — kneeling during the national anthem ahead of the opener.
There's been a push within baseball this week to address racial injustice four years after the sport was largely silent during quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests — only one baseball player, Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell in 2017, had kneeled during the anthem prior to this season.
That’s changed this year. Every team participated in Black Lives Matter-inspired ceremonies before their opener, and numerous players and coaches have taken a knee.
“Now is when people will finally listen,” explained Stanton, a Black slugger with the New York Yankees who plans to kneel throughout the season.
Forced into an unprecedented season, Major League Baseball is taking the chance to break with tradition, unleashing a trio of controversial changes.
The National League adopted the designated hitter for the first time, and Mets slugger Yoenis Céspedes — sidelined since 2018 with various lower body injuries — hit the first home run by a DH during a game between NL teams on opening day.
There’s a new protocol for extra innings, with each team awarded an automatic runner at second base to start each inning after the ninth.
Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani became the majors' first designated duck on the pond Friday night. A’s first baseman Matt Olson caught him trying to take third on a grounder to kill Los Angeles' inning, then slugged a game-ending grand slam in the bottom of the frame.
The change was poorly received, but after seeing it in action, some traditionalists are seeing the appeal.
“It’s another one of these changes that we might end up liking,” 64-year-old Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Made it interesting.”
Lastly, MLB unveiled another modification hours before first pitch, expanding the postseason from 10 teams to 16.
Some clubs with injured stars might need the bigger field to qualify.
Houston’s Justin Verlander, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Texas’ Corey Kluber and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg have all gotten hurt — not surprising to those concerned about pitcher health following the condensed preseason camp.
Strasburg was scratched from a start Saturday because of a nerve issue in his pitching hand.
“To be frank,” the World Series MVP said, “this season is a bit of a mess.”
Soto’s stunning positive test has been followed by others.
The Atlanta Braves are without primary catchers Tyler Flowers and Travis d’Arnaud because they have coronavirus symptoms.
Cincinnati Reds second baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Nick Senzel felt sick Sunday, a day after a teammate went on the injured list because he tested positive for COVID-19.
The Miami Marlins scratched right-hander Jose Urena from his scheduled start Sunday in Philadelphia and delayed their postgame trip home amid concerns about a possible virus outbreak within the team.
“There’s nothing we can really do,” Marlins pitcher Robert Dugger said. “It’s out of our control. We just do the best we can with the masks and social distancing and all that, and hope for the best.”
Players have adopted some virus-minded celebrations, including air fives and foot taps, but it's hardly been perfect. High-fives and fist bumps continue to be common, and distancing in the dugout has appeared to be a challenge even with some reserves watching from the stands. Clubs have had a particularly hard time upholding protocols after big plays, like when the A’s piled around Olson at home plate following his game-ending slam Friday.
The news Sunday of potential outbreaks with the Reds and Marlins was a reminder of how fragile the season could be.
“We all have to take responsibility,” Twins slugger Nelson Cruz said. “I take care of myself, don’t go around or mess around. But that has to include the whole team.
“If 10 or 15 or 25 guys do it and the rest are messing around, it can mess everything up. We’re always talking about that — being conscious what you’re doing. It’s not only for yourself, it’s for the whole team. The team can be devastated if a few guys test positive.”
AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich, Steven Wine and David Brandt contributed to this report.
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