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Play Ball! Major League Baseball opens its pandemic-delayed season in Washington

Four months delayed, and dramatically curtailed by the ongoing pandemic, the 2020 Major League Baseball season finally opened in Washington on Thursday night, offering a moment of near-normalcy for a country that has endured more than 143,000 deaths due to coronavirus.  

Appropriately, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tossed out the ceremonial first pitch before the reigning champion Washington Nationals hosted the visiting New York Yankees.  Although he was wearing a Nationals logo on his mask, Fauci’s pitch was far from MLB caliber, bouncing well short of the plate and several feet outside the strike zone. 

The Yankees jumped out to a 4-1 lead on the back of an early two-run home run by Giancarlo Stanton and earned the win when the game was called due to thunderstorms after five innings. 

MLB did acknowledge the national unrest following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. In a poignant reference to the racial reckoning happening in the US, players and other members of both teams held a long black ribbon while standing spaced out along the two foul lines. After they placed the ribbon on the ground, everyone then got on their knees before rising for a performance of the national anthem. 

The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers had a similar moment of silence before their opener at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night. Former American League MVP Mookie Betts took a knee during the anthem before making his Dodgers debut. 

Thursday’s doubleheader begins the most unusual year in MLB history. Rather than 162 games, teams will play 60 times in ballparks without fans, while navigating a whole new set of rules and safety protocols, such as regular testing. Sound effects will be piped into stadiums and cardboard cutouts will occupy many seats, as was the case at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. 

Every player and coach on the Yankees and Nationals takes a knee before the national anthem

(via @MarkZuckerman)pic.twitter.com/BReFKXrxOE

Yankees players decided Wednesday they wanted to kneel for 60 seconds before the anthem. New York officials then asked Washington if that time could be added to the pregame script. The Nationals decided they wanted to join the Yankees.

‘We’ve had conversations as an organization. We’ve had conversations as a team. We’ve had smaller group conversations. Conversations with one another,’ New York manager Aaron Boone said hours before the game. ‘And we’ve kind of decided … we’ll, as a team, have our own demonstration on the field.’

Players also wore T-shirts saying Black Lives Matter during batting practice, and the letters ‘BLM’ were stenciled into the back of the mound at the center of the diamond. 

That followed a series of videos: about Black Lives Matter, showing major league players such as New York’s Aaron Judge and Washington’s Howie Kendrick; about the Nationals’ postseason run; about the COVID-19 outbreak.

Without any spectators present to appreciate the celebrations, flags noting the franchise’s first title were raised beyond right field and above the scoreboard, and ‘2019 World Champions’ was written on a red mat that was wrapped around the batter’s boxes during pregame introductions.

Thursday’s starting pitching matchup was actually a rematch from the World Series, as Nationals ace Max Scherzer faced off against the Yankees’ newest acquisition, Gerrit Cole, who pitched for the American League champion Houston Astros last season.  

MLB and the players’ union agreed Thursday to expand the playoffs from 10 teams to 16 for the pandemic-delayed season, a person familiar with the deal said, a decision that makes it likely teams with losing records will reach the postseason.

The agreement was reached hours before the season opener between the New York Yankees and World Series champion Washington Nationals, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the agreement was subject to owner approval.

Sixteen of the 30 teams will advance to a best-of-three first round. Those winners move on to the best-of-five Division Series, where the usual format resumes. The final four teams are in best-of-seven League Championship Series, and the pennant winners meet in the best-of-seven World Series.

As part of the deal, MLB agreed to guarantee a postseason pool that would be $50 million if the entire postseason is played. The postseason pool usually comprises ticket money from the postseason, but baseball anticipates playing the entire year in empty ballparks due to the coronavirus.

‘It’s such a unique season, why not try a little something different and make it as exciting as possible,’ said Colorado shortstop Trevor Story, whose team has never won a World Series title. ‘I know it’s going to be such a sprint with the 60-game season; adding more playoff teams will just add to the fire and the excitement and the fandom around the game. Anything can happen in a 60-game season. I’m all for it.’

The change means 53 percent of the 30 teams reach the playoffs. If eight teams qualified for the playoffs in each league from 1995 through 2019, 46 teams at or below .500 would have made it, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, an average of just under two per season. Those teams included 25 from the AL.

There would have been only three seasons in which all playoff teams would have had winning records, Elias said: 2000, 2003 and 2009.

‘From a selfish, White Sox standpoint, I’m certainly in favor of it just for the mere fact that it enhances the possibilities that this group’s going to get exposed to October baseball,’ Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. ‘We’ve talked over the years of this rebuild and into this next stage that learning how to win is part of that. And certainly learning how to win in October is very much part of getting us to our ultimate goals.’

MLB long restricted its postseason to just the pennant winners facing each other in the World Series. Postseason teams doubled to four with the split of each league into two divisions in 1969, then to eight with the realignment to three divisions and the addition of a wild card in 1995, a year later than planned due to a players’ strike. The postseason reached 10 with the addition of a second wild card and a wild-card round in 2012.

The new format created a minimum 14 additional postseason games and as many as 22 if each first-round series goes the distance. The plan was part of MLB’s proposal last month to restart the season, but the union ended those talks and told MLB to unilaterally announce a schedule. That move preserved the union’s right to file a grievance claiming MLB did not negotiate in good faith to play as long a regular season as economically feasible, subject to conditions set in a March 26 agreement between the feuding sides.

‘It would be a great way to keep fan bases engaged throughout the entire season,’ Milwaukee Brewers star Christian Yelich said. ‘You’d have a really tight race all the way down to the last day of the season. I think there’d be a lot of teams in it within a game or two of each other going into that final day.’

Two additional NFL teams reach the playoffs this season for a total of 14 of 32 NFL teams (44 percent) in the playoffs. Sixteen of 30 (53 percent) usually go to the playoffs in the NBA and 16 of 31 in the NHL (52 percent), which expands to 32 franchises next season.

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