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'Most anticipated opening day I've ever seen': 2021 MLB season begins, promising hope for the summer

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DENVER — There will be no downtown parades with high-school marching bands. No traditional sellout crowds outside the state of Texas. No beer and hot-dog vendors roaming the stadium aisles. No cash, credit cards only. And no masks, no admittance.

Different norms, for sure, but Major League Baseball’s opening day Thursday has never been so beautiful.

There’s a 162-game schedule – 102 more than a year ago. 

There will be a DH in the American League and not in the National League, just as it has been since 1973.

There will be three divisional winners and two wild-card teams making the playoffs from each league just as it has been since 2012, but expanded to a 16-team field a year ago.

Finally, a dose of normalcy, and it has never felt so good.

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“I have never seen the kind of anticipation for an opening day that I sense with respect to this one,’’ commissioner Rob Manfred told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s the most anticipated opening day I’ve ever seen.

“I have to tell you the idea being back, looking at a full 162-game season, with at least some fans in the ballpark, I could not be more excited.’’ 

It’s no different than with the players, who spent all of last season talking about how cold and unemotional it felt without the fans, questioning whether it even felt like a real season.

Jacob deGrom, New York Mets right-hander
Last year, no one really knew what to expect. You came in, had a month to get ready, you then you play a short season.

“It’s definitely exciting,’’ said New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who will be facing Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals on Thursday. “Last year, no one really knew what to expect. You came in, had a month to get ready, you then you play a short season.

“We’re trained to play 162, and hopefully play more than that. We’re excited to have fans back in the stands and get that going.’’ 

Some spring-training tickets were selling for nearly $200 in the Cactus League, despite games lasting as few as five innings and funky rules.

“I just think people want to be back at the game,’’ Manfred said. “They are really anticipating being back in the ballpark.’’

There’s growing optimism in the game, and really around the country, that things could feel quasi-normal by mid-summer.

“We hope to have a sense of normalcy sooner than later based on the trends that we are seeing,’’ said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Teams, beginning with the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals on Monday evening, have already begun mass vaccinations. Most teams will follow suit. The vaccinations aren’t mandatory, but if 85% of the teams’ players and staff get the shots, those safety and health protocols will be removed, enabling players to dine together again, have their families join them on the road, and go back to playing cards and video games together in the clubhouses.

“That’s an individual decision, I would never force anyone to do that,’’ Philadelphia Phillies president Dave Dombrowski said. “However, I would point out, we would point out, players would probably point out, that if we get to 85%, their lives change dramatically as far as travel is concerned.’’

A young Angels fan asks for a ball during a spring training game.

A young Angels fan asks for a ball during a spring training game.
Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

Said St. Louis Cardinals president John Mozeliak: “I’m hopeful people will do it because the more vaccines that go into arms, ultimately the more freedom or normalcy we’ll be able to experience.’’

The Cardinals were shut down for 19 days last summer when 10 players and eight staff members tested positive for COVID-19, so even if they do reach the 85% threshold, they’re not about to hit the streets without masks.

“It doesn’t mean you can relax the protocols or put your guard down,” Mozeliak said. “I do feel being down here in Florida [during spring training] there’s this sense that the pandemic is behind us. I don’t think that’s a healthy mentality yet.”

Case in point was when the Washington Nationals discovered Wednesday that one of their players tested positive for COVID-19, and another four players and a staffer need to quarantine because of contact tracing, making them inactive opening night.

MLB players showed their resolve and discipline this spring, silencing the notion that the season needed to be pushed back a month. There were only 12 players and five staff members who tested positive for COVID-19 after reporting to spring training camp, among the 72,751 tests.

“The players and their families have been outstanding,’’ Clark told USA TODAY Sports, “understanding the importance of the need for the protocols and obviously wanting to play and have the season start on time and continue as scheduled. The guys committed to it, and helped each other stay accountable. …

“We still have some challenges and concerns, and the diligence is going to have to continue. But the position the guys took with an eye on playing a full season over a full slate of days rather than a shortened window was the right position to take.’’

Even the Phillie Phanatic had to prepare for the coming season at spring training.

Even the Phillie Phanatic had to prepare for the coming season at spring training.
Mike Watters, USA TODAY Sports

Said Manfred: “I cannot say enough about what the players and club personnel did during spring training. They did a phenomenal job to get us through 60 [games] last year, and I think they were even better and more careful in spring training.’’

There will be obstacles, of course, with the schedule reverting to normal. Pitchers who haven’t picked up a bat in 1 ½ years now will be required to hit in the National League. Minor leaguers who didn’t play a single game last season, like Andrew Vaughn of the Chicago White Sox, now will be playing integral roles in the big leagues. And who knows how home-run hitters will react with the modification in baseballs after a record 6,776 were hit in 2019.

The players union still wishes that a universal DH was implemented this season considering it will likely be around to stay in 2022. MLB offered a universal DH during the winter in exchange for an expanded postseason with 14 teams. The union soundly rejected the proposal. There were no counter-offers. The subject was never revisited.

“The position we’ve taken since Day 1 on the DH issue,’’ Clark said, “is that it’s a healthy and safety issue. So that concern remains.’’

While the conflict and distrust between the union and MLB is ugly, and the potential of the first work stoppage since 1994 looms this winter, there’s still a full, unadulterated 162-game season to play this year.

There will be fans at ballparks with the capacity increasing each month. Revenues for clubs will grow. Players will be paid full salaries again. Fans will be cheering their favorite teams and players. They’ll be booing the Houston Astros. And they’ll screaming and cursing at the umpiring crew and instant replay results.

Yep, just like old times.

“I really don’t believe that our players ever took the fans for granted,’’ Manfred said, “but I am a believer in the adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder. I think playing for the first time ever without fans that it reminded everybody how important fans are to the atmosphere in the ballpark.’’

And after playing the shortest season since 1878, turning a marathon into a sprint, maybe there will be a deeper appreciation of the grueling sport.

“It is a separator and why baseball is the national pastime,’’ Maddon said. “You come home from work any day during the summer, and either put the radio on or watch TV and see your favorite team play. And then there’s all this stir about that night, that game, your favorite player, your favorite team, what’s going on, and you can do that every night during the summer. Every night.

“You start in school, go through the summer, go back to school and it’s still going on.”

Baseball, in almost its pure and natural version (there still will be seven-inning doubleheaders and a runner starting on second base in extra innings) is finally back.

The two most beautiful words in the sport will never be so passionately embraced on opening day:

“Play ball.’’

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