The world has changed dramatically since the last time major North American sports leagues were in action. Come Thursday, baseball fans will notice the ripple effects of those changes all around the diamond at Nationals Park.
Major League Baseball will become the latest and most popular North American sports league to resume competition after the coronavirus shutdown when the World Series champion Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees at 7 p.m.
It promises to be a major league season unlike any before it. Each team will play just 60 regular-season games at empty ballparks, and both leagues will use designated hitters for the first time and make other changes to rules that will seem strange to baseball purists.
In the four-plus months that sports have been on pause, COVID-19 has not been the only progenitor of change. The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, and more athletes than ever have joined the dialogue.
Now, with the national platform of live sports returning, expect protests and social justice messages before and during games to be the norm, not the exception.
Baseball players traditionally haven’t been leaders in that arena compared with football and basketball athletes, but a growing number have taken on social justice issues and spoken out against racism this summer.
Several Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants players knelt during the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at exhibition games this week. Giants manager Gabe Kapler knelt with his players, while others put their hands on kneeling teammates’ shoulders as a show of support.
Los Angeles Dodgers players, most notably ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw, recorded a video in which they spoke out against racial injustice in the U.S.
Nationals players have given no word about acts of protest, but the franchise on Wednesday announced plans to honor Black Lives Matter and the victims of COVID-19 during the three games against the Yankees this weekend.
A message of support for Black Lives Matter will be stenciled on the pitcher’s mound, and center field will feature a black heart with “D.C.” in the middle, the team said in a statement.
Around the league, more and more players are speaking out about social issues.
“There’s been a lot going on over the last few months, but with me and a few guys on the team, we’ve been holding Zoom calls about the issue at hand,” Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who is Black, said this month. “We’re all coming together, talking about it. I’m educating them, I’m educating myself on everything that’s going on. We all just want things to change, want things to get better.”
Joining protest movements
Baseball is the latest sport this summer to show an increase in awareness of social justice matters.
Many NBA players plan to wear social justice messages in place of their names on their jerseys. The league has approved 29 messages. For the Washington Wizards, Troy Brown Jr. has chosen “Black Lives Matter.” Admiral Schofield’s uniform says “Enough,” and others are emblazoned with “Equality” and “Vote.”
The league drew criticism from Republicans in Congress for rejecting “Free Hong Kong” as a message after the NBA’s fiasco last year involving China and freedom of speech. The NBA season resumes July 30.
When the WNBA begins its truncated season this weekend, all players’ jerseys will bear the name of Breonna Taylor underneath their own. In March, Taylor was killed by police while asleep in her bed when police executed a no-knock search warrant at her house. The league is dedicating its opening weekend to honor Taylor.
Washington Mystics players said they were glad to bring more attention to Taylor’s case. The police officers involved have not been charged with any crime.
“The biggest thing is we want to continue to say her name,” Tianna Hawkins said. “We will not stop until justice is served. The season’s important, but what’s more important is finding that justice for her, in her memory.”
It doesn’t stop there. In June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was wrong when it tried to control player protests in the past. Now a number of players both Black and White, including Washington running back Adrian Peterson and Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, have publicly committed to kneeling during the national anthem.
Washington coach Ron Rivera said in June that he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and the individual decisions of his players about how to protest.
“It’s their choice, their decision,” Rivera said. “I support it because it’s in our Constitution. That’s what our military personnel fought for: for our rights, for our sake.”
The NFL is expected to approve helmet decals that honor victims such as Floyd and Taylor. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black national anthem, reportedly will be performed or played before “The Star-Spangled Banner” at every game during Week 1.
Get used to the DH
Acts of protest aren’t the only thing to watch out for when the Nationals and Yankees take the field Thursday.
Washington and other National League teams will use designated hitters all season for the first time. Before this season, only the American League used designated hitters. National League teams had pitchers take at-bats.
Among other new rules: When games go to extra innings, teams will begin every half-inning with a runner on second base. The goal is to expedite the game’s end. Pitchers will be allowed to have wet rags in their uniform pockets to keep their hands moist rather than licking their fingers, which could spread germs.
The stands will be empty, but there will be crowd noise. Teams are allowed to pipe in typical stadium sounds — cheers, murmurs, even boos — over loudspeakers. Expect some miscues. At the exhibition game last weekend between the Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals Park “crowd” cheered a Bryce Harper homer.
Just because the MLB season will start Thursday doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to finish.
Unlike the “bubble” environments for basketball and hockey, baseball plans to have teams travel to home teams’ usual stadiums for games. This requires more logistical coordination to keep players free from coronavirus contamination than sealing them in a bubble.
The Canadian government rejected the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to play home games in their usual ballpark. As of Wednesday, it was not decided where the team would play instead. The Nationals were scheduled to play two games at the Blue Jays next week.
The Nationals enter the 2020 season without former MVP candidate Anthony Rendon manning third base. Rendon left for the Los Angeles Angels in free agency, but most of last year’s team was retained. Starter Stephen Strasburg again will pitch in the same rotation as Max Scherzer after he signed a seven-year, $245 million deal last winter to stay with Washington.
Scherzer is expected to start in the season opener against the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, who should be familiar to most Nationals fans — he manhandled the Nationals lineup in Game 5 of the World Series in October.