UFC and boxing have restarted their competitive schedules. So has golf. The NBA and major league baseball are heading back for shortened seasons and soon will be followed by the NFL. At least that’s the plan.
The return of sports on television has been welcomed in the midst of this continuing pandemic and it’s admirable athletes are willing to compete in the midst of COVID-19. But there remains no timetable for the return of fans to be in attendance, and it just hasn’t been the same without them.
Performing amid empty arenas, golf courses and stadiums doesn’t offer the same atmosphere, passion, pageantry and emotion that fans bring to an event, and that’s not going to change until it’s safe to put 10 to 20-thousand people together to cheer what’s going on.
Let’s hope with all the reflection that’s taking place these days owners, promoters, athletes and even the media will treat fans with a little more respect when life gets back to normal.
Fans deserve better. They’ve been taken for granted by ownership trying to find ways to siphon every last dime out of their wallet instead of making attending games a more affordable and memorable experience. The empty seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are constant reminders of the greed that comes with escalating ticket prices and salaries. Let’s hope the impact of COVID-19 can serve as a reminder that sports aren’t the same without people in the arena reacting to those trying to entertain.
While the NBA heads to Orlando, baseball is preparing to restart a season that never got started and play a 60-game schedule in front of nobody. And while that sounds like a good thing, baseball is already slow enough and will become dreadfully boring without fans to serve as entertainment through three hours of little action. Once the novelty wears off, watching baseball without fans might be the worst thing to happen to the sport.
The only ones not complaining might be the Astros, who would have been subjected to endless heckling after being exposed as cheaters during the offseason. Perhaps the umpires, who tend to get an earful from the stands won’t mind either, and the relief pitcher who gets bombed without recording an out will enjoy a quieter walk to the dugout. The high-priced free agent slugger going through a slump won’t have to worry about getting razzed, and the manager won’t get booed for a questionable double switch.
But who’s going to react when someone hits a walk-off home run or acknowledge a starter who just threw seven shut-out innings or cheer the outfielder who makes a great catch while crashing into a wall or a runner who stretches a double into a triple? Who’s going to stand in unison during a big at-bat or sing during the seventh-inning stretch? Will they even need a seventh-inning stretch?
Fighters beat up each other and golfers are trying to get ball in a hole in the least amount of strokes. Simple. Baseball is game of subtleties that mean a lot. Signs are delivered from the manager to the catcher to the pitcher to the shortstop and to the outfielder. The opposition sends signals from the bench to the hitter and to the runner. Tendencies and averages are constantly analyzed. Lefty or righty? Keep the starter or go to the bullpen? What about a pinch-hitter? What’s a baseball game without fans to react to all this?
Fans have put up with a lot crap in recent years. Late starts, PSLs, players demanding trades over contract disputes, increased ticket prices, spending a fortune on bottled water, players who grumble when asked for an autograph, parking congestion, and being forced, especially in New York, to watch mostly lousy teams. They put up with general managers who no longer feel the need to communicate with them on a regular basis. And they can get booted from an arena for saying the wrong thing to an owner.
Despite all that, fans kept showing up so announcers can talk about “the electricity in the building” and athletes can call themselves entertainers. Basketball and baseball might be coming back, but the fans aren’t. Maybe they’ll be treated better when they do.
It had been a long time since we all had a chance to speak with Brodie Van Wagenen and as we start to look at the possibility of a 2020 baseball season, he feels very optimistic that despite the unique situation of a trucated season, he thinks the Mets are headed for a successful campaign.
On his conference call we talked a bit about the pandemic but we chatted mostly about his roster that has some terrific pieces. As the designated hitter comes front and center in the senior circuit, the Mets seem primed to take advantage of that rule change adding another bat to that lineup. “We have some options there:, said Van Wagenen that includes Yoenis Cespedes, JD Davis, and Dominic Smith as well as others.”
I also think it gives the team flexibility because with a 60 game schedule you may see the regular players in the lineup each and every day and quite possibly serving as the DH might constitute an off day rather than sitting out the entire game. It could really become an important part of the manager’s long-tern game plan in the National League parks
And that brings us to Luis Rojas–a rookie manager in this strange season but Brodie thinks that is no big deal. ” In a sense I think this situation helps my manager because every manager is going through something new-not just him, said Van Wagenen.
When you think about the Met season last year, it was distinctly so different in the second half than it was in the first half of the season but the biggest obstacle all season was a bullpen that under performed on a regular basis. Both Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia had brutal seasons but both clearly have great stuff. From what I heard from both of them, their off-season regimen has focused on one thing–go back to the path that created your successful years.
For Diaz, that meant pitch selection–he was far too reliant on his slider and must never forget his fastball is CLEARLY his best pitch and resist the need to establish his slider early in the count-be confident in that high rising fastball. And for Familia, he must always remember his sinking fastball is his best pitch and like Diaz his slider had a tendency last year to flatten out in the strike zone because his extension on his follow thru was very inconsistent.
The good news is that in both Justin Wilson and Seth Lugo the Mets had 2 very reliable relief pitchers in the second half of the year but in this shortened season you will clearly need more than 2 which is why Van Wagenen signed Dellin Betances as a free agent. The issue with Betances that I saw in spring training was his velocity or late movement seemed to be missing on the mound. This is also a pitcher coming off an injury so that is something the Mets need to assess quickly in the shortened season.
When I look at the Met roster, I think only the Braves have a better group of players in the NL East as their lineup will be fine and their starting pitching will provide depth and solid starting performances. I even think their defense is better than a year ago If Cano gets off to another bad start, I think the Mets won’t hesitate putting McNeil at second, JD Davis or a healthy Jed Lowrie at third, and putting together a very good defensive outfield in Conforto, Nimmo, and Marisnick even if Cespedes can only DH and not play the field.
But the bullpen is the huge variable in this mini-season because it will be called upon every single day especially in the early going when starting pitchers may only go 5 or 6 innings. And as Brodie knows the thing about bulpens is you never know. And this group has the names that can get the job done but also it could go the other way. Just ask The Washington Nationals–they struggled with a pen all year and it almost cost them a playoff spot but they found Daniel Hudson late in the year and he saved their season in so many ways.
That sunny feeling that Brodie sees right now might become more cloudy if the bullpen has a repeat performance from 2019, On the other hand, there are great arms out there that can get it done. And I believe the toughest part of a manager’s job in today’s game is managing the bullpen. You have to be patient yet at the same time not afraid to make risky changes that you believe will right the ship.
Will Luis Rojas be able to do that? I can tell you as a coach he put plans together and executed them because this Met clubhouse really believes in him. In conversations I had with him, I can see why players trust him with their game plan path, That trust the Met relievers have in his plans will dictate their success in a season where you simply can not put yourself in a hole like the Nationals did last year because there just won’t be enough time to crawl out of it.
In a 60 game season you want to go 40-20 which would likely secure a playoff spot and a poor start could send those plans right down the drain. And the biggest reason for any poor start in this setting would be a poor bullpen. That sunny sky Brodie sees could change in a hurry or it could become a radiant sunshine. And the Met bullpen numbers will define the looks of that sky above CitiField in 2020.