If they told you two weeks before the start of the original spring training in February that the Phillies would win the World Series, but the season would not start until the end of July and fans would be forbidden from watching live games, would you have signed up?
Perhaps you would have, but only after advising the messenger to seek psychiatric help.
COVID-19, which was just beginning to spread throughout the country when Bryce Harper and company reported to Clearwater, Fla., more than five months ago, delayed the start of the 2020 baseball season by four months and has reduced the schedule to just 60 games with the help of some bickering between the owners and players.
But opening day has finally arrived. For the Phillies, it starts Friday night against the Miami Marlins at a mostly vacant Citizens Bank Park. Just based on what we saw in summer camp, it is clear that this baseball season is going to take some getting used to.
Wishing things were different has been the theme of many Phillies seasons and this one is sure to be unlike any other regardless of their record. So before the masked umpire crew chief officially yells play ball, here is a look at some of the unusual things you are likely to see in this pandemic-stricken season.
No fans (the players admit they will miss you)
Without question, the biggest adjustment for managers, coaches and players is going to be the empty ballparks.
“I think everybody knows it’s going to be a whole lot different without the fans,” Phillies center fielder Roman Quinn said. “There’s that whole adrenaline rush thing you get when the fans are there, and just from playing the intrasquad games I could feel myself not having as much energy out there as I do when the fans are in the stands. I think that’s something we are definitely going to have to push through and prepare for.”
His manager agrees.
“Hopefully the players can reminisce and think about the fun times they had playing summer ball and high school ball when nobody was there, but it’s definitely going to be strange without anyone in the stands for sure,” Joe Girardi said.
There won’t be anyone in the stands, but that does not mean there will not be anything in the stands. The Phillie Phanatic, following his spring-training makeover, did get the green light from Major League Baseball to strut his furry green body around the ballpark, but the playing field is off-limits.
The Phillies also promised to place cardboard cutouts posing as fans in the stands, a move first implemented by teams in the Korean Baseball Organization. The cardboard crowd should be equipped with masks because no one wants to be responsible for spreading cardboard cutout coronavirus.
Let’s just hope they do not have cardboard cutout relations when left alone in the ballpark after games because they might multiply to more than ballpark capacity before the season is over.
The empty ballpark will not be silent, either. The players will have their walk-up music and they will be introduced by longtime public address announcer Dan Baker. Crowd noise, complete with cheers, jeers and boos, will be piped in, although it was a work in progress during the Phillies’ only summer-camp exhibition game Sunday against Baltimore.
“I think the fan noise is probably important just so you don’t hear everything,” Girardi said. “You don’t hear the catcher moving his setup behind the plate, you don’t hear some of the conversations that might be taking place on the field or on the bench, so I think that’s important.
“It’s interesting. When you’re in a ballpark you don’t notice normal authentic crowd noise, but when you’re at the ballpark now you notice piped-in crowd noise. I think we’re all getting used to it. We’ve had the volume higher and we’ve had it lower and I think we prefer the lower. There’s no substitute for fans’ emotion and passion. We’re trying to do the best we can.”
Managing partner John Middleton believes once the games matter that the competitive instincts of the players will kick into overdrive.
“Competition is its own source of energy,” Middleton said. “If you’re an athlete, the competition gets you going. In wrestling practice when I was in college, I’d get into it. There were times when wrestling practice was as intense and as physical and as draining as any match I had ever been in. If you can do that in practice, you can do that in a stadium without any fans. It’s part of the fabric of elite athletes. It’s in their DNA.”
As you might expect, Middleton’s anticipation and expectations for the 2020 Phillies have not been tamped down by the pandemic or the shortened schedule.
“I’m already excited,” he said. “It’s going to be different … but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be less excited. The thing I’m still most interested in this season is us winning. I don’t care if the season is 10 games, 60 games, 120 games or 162 games — at the end of the day if there is going to be a champion I want it to be us.”
The new in-game rules
For the first time in history, the designated hitter will be used on a daily basis in both leagues. Girardi said he does not plan on having a set DH, but the player most likely to get the most starts at that position is Jay Bruce. Girardi will also use the DH to give regulars such as Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen a day off in the field.
The other new rule will be implemented in extra innings. Each half inning will begin with a runner at second base and nobody out. The designated runner will be the hitter who made the final out of the previous inning or a substitute for that player. The rule has been in place at certain minor-league levels since 2018.
The masked men
It’s not as if baseball players have never worn masks before. In fact, ski masks are often the preferred attire when it is 40 degrees with 25-mph winds at Wrigley Field in late March, early April and sometimes even May.
Masks in the middle of July, however, will be a sight to see and a sight we are sure to see. Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius has said he will wear a mask at the plate and in the field because he has a compromised immune system as the result of a chronic kidney disorder. Rhys Hoskins has donned a mask when holding runners on at first base.
“The social distancing and masks is going to take some getting used to,” Girardi said.
That was also clear in summer-camp games. Pitcher Aaron Nola forgot his personal rosin bag at the end of his start against Washington at Nationals Park and Harper exchanged a high five with Andrew Knapp after hitting a three-run home run Saturday night, a move that is frowned upon by MLB’s coronavirus protocols.
Plenty of good seats in front of the TV
This is going to be a different sort of season for big-league broadcasters, too, and Phillies play-by-play man Tom McCarthy acknowledged that before calling Sunday’s summer-camp game against Baltimore.
“It’s different, but I think you kind of get used to different after a while,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s what we all have felt. The one thing I’ve really noticed is that the crack of the bat echoes like I’ve never heard it echo, but I’ve kind of taken the approach that you have to do it the same way you have done it before and try to make it as normal as possible.”
One very different thing you’ll notice is that man-in-the-stands Gregg Murphy will be confined to a broadcast booth during games.
But the biggest change in coverage will be when the team is on the road. Both the radio team of Scott Franzke, Larry Andersen, and Kevin Frandsen and the television team of McCarthy, Murphy, John Kruk, Ben Davis, and newcomer Ruben Amaro Jr. will call the road games from Citizens Bank Park.
“We’ve all probably done it at some point,” McCarthy said. “We just haven’t done it consistently. I don’t think it’s going to be a big issue. You won’t be able to see the left-field line and the right-field line or a baserunner, but we’re working on some of those things now. The fans won’t see it all the time, but we are hoping to have a four-box setup so I can see a guy taking off from first. It’s not going to be the same, but I think it’s OK.”
The virus protocols
COVID-19 already has had a major impact on the 2020 season and that will continue to be the case from start to finish. There’s a long list of protocols for the players, including no spitting, no licking of the fingers, and no exchange of lineup cards at home plate.
The Phillies have had seven players test positive for COVID-19, but that was before the July 3 start of summer camp and all have since returned. Every team except the Chicago Cubs has had at least one player test positive. The list includes Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon, and Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman.
A number of players have also decided to opt out of the 2020 season, including San Francisco catcher Buster Posey and Dodgers pitcher David Price.
Ultimately the virus will determine if the 2020 season can be played to its completion.
As for the Phillies winning the World Series, Girardi promises that is his plan.