12 Hours in the Life of Major League Baseball

Juan Soto has tested positive for COVID-19. He will not play in tonight’s season opener.


The answers are hard to find amid the frenzy of questions. We learn, gradually, that Soto was tested two days ago; that the results just came in this morning. Well, didn’t he play an exhibition game two days ago? Wasn’t he with the rest of the Nats yesterday, doing batting practice? Have they done contact tracing? Is everyone safe?

Yes, everyone is safe, we are told; “Everyone is good.” Soto was, and remains, asymptomatic. Those “closest to him” were tested earlier today, and will be tested again tomorrow.

Unknowns: how contact tracing has determined that everyone is “good”; how safe the rest of the Nationals players are; how the Yankees, who along with every other team have no obligation to wear masks on the field, will have their safety ensured; when Soto will be back.

Just over four hours before the first pitch, the announcement: The playoffs will include 16 teams this year.


In the Dominican Republic, Diamondbacks scout Johan Maya dies of COVID-19. He played in the Astros minor-league system and spent 15 years as a scout for them. He had a family, a wife and children. He was 40 years old.


Clayton Kershaw has injured his back. He will not play in tonight’s season opener.


And here we are: The 2020 season begins in one of the places the 2019 season left off. The last time we saw Nats Park, it was raining, but the fans gathered to watch their distant team on the big screen. They roared and sighed and roared again, though there was no one playing on the field below. Now, the field is full. It is the fans who are not there.

“Never before have we been so excited for baseball,” the broadcasters intone. They do not say why.

The first hit of the season belongs to Aaron Judge, and shortly after, Giancarlo Stanton — the first DH to bat in an NL-hosted game — hits the first homer. In the open air, Max Scherzer’s curses and the Yankee dugout’s cheers are all exposed. When the bat and the ball collide, it sounds the stadium itself is breaking.

A masked man retrieves the ball. Who is he? Where is he taking it?


Cole strikes out Andrew Stevenson to end the second, stranding a runner. Five pitches: two strikes looking, two fouls, a tip. Stevenson didn’t have a chance. He is only playing because Soto isn’t.


The players, we are told, are allowed to keep a microfiber cloth in their back pocket — only their back pocket — and soak it with water¬†— only¬†water. The fake crowd noise becomes loud and then quiet, then loud, and then quiet, and I am constantly disturbed by what appears to be a towel hanging off something behind home plate. Is it a camera? I think I see it moving sometimes, but then I’m not so sure. It has been an hour, and it has been there this entire time.

There will be 16 teams in the postseason this year — an hour after the season begins, we learn this for what now passes as certain.

Three out of the four runs that have scored so far did so via the homer. But small ball is proclaimed back from the dead. That, in 2020, is what we are looking for in baseball: A return to the fundamentals. All strangeness must facilitate a return to tradition. Otherwise, what is it for? What does it mean?

There is a storm coming. Lightning, thunder, a huge dark cloud looming. The camera operators — the few figures standing distant in the ballpark — have been advised to leave.

Scherzer has 10 strikeouts. Cole has five; he’s only allowed three baserunners. The Yankees lead as the sixth inning begins.


Rob Manfred appears on the screen. “Everyone” is excited about the expanded playoffs, we learn, and then we learn that what Matt Vasgersian thinks is true about the expanded playoffs isn’t: There will be no first-round bye. Behind Manfred’s head, the sky is pitch-dark — until, as he speaks, it fills with the sharp white of lightning.

The rain is pouring now. Out comes the grounds crew, hurriedly unfurling tarps — a delay, or perhaps an ending. We don’t know yet. We won’t know for a while. As the electricity flashes in the dark, we wait.


In Los Angeles, under the warm light of a Pacific evening, they comb the dirt, make sure the cardboard cutouts, the happy fans and the even happier dogs, are placed just so, their smiles (and gasps, and occasional grimaces) facing outward.


Water pouring from the empty aisles. Water pouring down the empty stairs. A waterfall battering the PedigreeTM seat cover. Thunder — loud thunder, the sky heavy and cracking. Rain comes down in waves. Raindrops splatter in the mud, sending mud splashing in the air. PLEASE EXIT THE SEATING BOWL, the jumbotron says, as someone in a poncho runs for cover. SEVERE STORMS ARE HERE.

There are still relievers standing in the bullpen. They mill around, watching the downpour. Where else would they go, really?


Instead of Clayton Kershaw, it is Dustin May on the mound — all of 22 years old, his wild curls spilling out from under his hat. The first pitch of the game becomes a weak groundball off the bat of Mike Yastrzemski, which in turn becomes an error off the glove of Corey Seager. Three pitches later, the game’s first out is recorded in Betts’ outstretched glove.

When Pablo Sandoval shoots a double-play-ready groundball through the right side of the infield, Yastrzemski runs into it. He twists his foot out of the way — not in time. The ball again spills out into the grass, errant. And the next ball in play, too, weakly-hit, just evades Seager’s shifted and outstretched arm, rolls to an anticlimactic stop on the grass. None of it, in the end, matters: Nobody scores. The inning concludes without incident.


Before both games, before the anthem was played, both teams’ players knelt on the grass in unison. As soon as the anthem began, they rose. In the Yankees-Nationals game, all of the players stood. In the Giants-Dodgers game, some stayed on the grass. Gabe Kapler, Yastrzemski, Sandoval, Hunter Pence; and Mookie Betts, the newly-signed star of the Dodgers’ next decade, upon whom the broadcast camera lingered.


At Nats Park, a river runs through the dugout.


A selection of Johnny Cueto pitches:

  • 3-2 on Austin Barnes. He lifts his leg, turns — looks back, leg still aloft– then the little wiggle, then the pitch, the ball diving down under Barnes’ bat, landing right on the inside corner. Strike three.
  • 1-2 on Cody Bellinger. Cueto seems to stop mid-delivery, seems to rotate his whole torso as though on a hinge, as though he’s just on the mound stretching and there’s nobody there. The pitch, a fastball, sails in high, but it was disorienting enough: Bellinger flies out on the next pitch.
  • 1-1 on Barnes again; the bases loaded, two out in the bottom of the fourth, the game now tied. This time, the delivery is smooth, an even, balanced twist, and a sinker in on the hands. Barnes grounds it to third; the inning ends. Cueto takes off his hat as he walks off the mound, saying something with a shake of his head. He does not come back.


In the eighth, after the Dodgers have opened the floodgates of run-scoring, a balloon drifts down from above. Shiny and metallic, some illegible rainbow text. It makes its slow, meandering way over the grass and onto the infield, in no hurry at all. Then it collapses on the dirt, where it is quickly snatched up by an umpire and carried away. Where did it come from? What was it celebrating? Even after the game ended, one still wondered.


The Yankees and Nationals never resumed play; their game ended where it was in the top of the sixth, at 4-1. The Dodgers pile on runs; the game ends at 8-1. If you somehow managed to fix your eyes on only the scores — if there were some means of creating total tunnel vision, blurring out the edges of consciousness to leave only the numbers of baseball — there would seem to be nothing weird, nothing off at all. It could just be another Thursday where the better teams won; a quiet, negligible day of play, a set of predictable results.

Except it wasn’t. And when we look back on this opening, I wonder what we will think about it. I wonder what we will remember.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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1 year ago

I listened to the Dodgers-Giants game via the LA radio feed (Rick Monday and somebody). A baseball had appeared on the warning track in an earlier inning, briefly delaying play, and they wondered where it came from with no fans in attendance. Then the balloon appeared, and their astonishment increased. “Where do they come from!?” one inquired. The other replied, “Well, it is Opening Day. Maybe that’s the fly-over.”

Other observations from the auditory experience: Cody Bellinger got caught in a run-down and there was (of course) absolutely no crowd noise to accompany it. That was the first time the strangeness of this season really hit me: a rare, exciting play with nobody there to respond to it. Even the announcers were kind of lackadaisical about it with no crowd to goad them. And I heard my first “Fuck!” when Joc Pederson swung on a pitch and rolled over on an easy grounder to 3rd. With no crowd noise to cover frustration, I’m sure it won’t be the last.

1 year ago
Reply to  Joser

You can often hear Joc swear with the crowd… with no crowds, there are going to be a lot of audible swearing (not just from Joc)