It's comeback time for America's pastime

Opening day this year for Major League Baseball could bring a renewal of fan affection and for the game itself.

Dr. Amy Portacci from Virginia Mason Franciscan Health plays catch in T-Mobile Park, the home of the Seattle Mariners baseball team, March 22. The Mariners invited health care workers to experience the ballpark ahead of Opening Day on April 1 in gratitude for those fighting COVID-19.

Forget the blooming crocuses. For many American sports fans, spring’s arrival is announced by college basketball’s March Madness tournament, or an early April visit to the verdant fairways of the Masters golf championship in Augusta, Georgia. Yet the truest harbinger of spring must surely be Major League Baseball’s opening day, this year on April 1.

That’s when 30 teams across North America begin a rhythmic marathon of games – day in, day out; week in, week out – until October yields the World Series. Last year professional baseball almost succumbed to the pandemic altogether. But eventually an abbreviated season yielded playoffs and crowned a champion, the Los Angeles Dodgers. During the offseason some stadiums were converted into vaccination centers. Now they’re about to revert to their proper use: hosting baseball games.

If the 2021 season won’t be a total return to “normal,” it will head a good way in that direction. Last year, with fans banned from almost all games, the empty stands left every crack of the bat with a hollow ring to it. Where were the cheers?

Sports at its most fulfilling thrives on affection and joy between teams, players, and fans. This year, most baseball clubs will allow a few thousand spectators, perhaps at 10% to 25% capacity. The Texas Rangers plan to fill all their seats on opening day, much to the joy of one of their biggest fans, former President George W. Bush, and to the chagrin of those favoring a more cautious approach.

Fans will still have to wear masks (except when eating) and practice social distancing. Players will wear face masks when not on the playing field. But in general the games should have much of the comforting familiarity of life before 2020.

Last year pro sports were touted by some as a needed distraction from trying times. This year baseball may become more of a celebration than a distraction, a return to something approaching normalcy.

Fans may even resume old-fashioned baseball talk: What teams or players will delight us? Disappoint us? What new name should Cleveland's team adopt? Calling them the Cleveland Spiders would have historical roots. 

Attention may turn to how to improve the game itself. In today’s baseball, batters too often either strike out, walk, or hit a home run. Those three outcomes deprive fans of seeing exciting action on the field when a ball is put into play.

As part of an effort to appeal to a younger demographic of fans who have fallen away from baseball, minor league teams will experiment with rule changes, including enlarged bases (reducing injuries from player collisions and perhaps creating more thrilling base-stealing attempts). In one minor league, defenders will not be allowed to shift their positions for each batter. (Teams now take advantage of advanced statistical analysis to predict where batters are most likely to hit the ball and place more defenders there.)

But the biggest change will be the presence of fans, young and old, in the stands, the return of the traditional day out at the ballpark.

Baseball 2021 is about to arrive: Play ball!

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