MINNEAPOLIS — The reminders are almost constant that nothing about the 2020 Major League Baseball season is going to be normal. The only question is how many different ways will we be reminded that ordinary isn’t going to return anytime soon?
The answer before the Twins’ 6-3 victory Tuesday over St. Louis in their home opener at Target Field came during the video press conferences conducted by president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and manager Rocco Baldelli. Many of the normal questions about the home opener, or winning two of three against the White Sox to open the season, were replaced with queries about what has been going on with the Miami Marlins and the fact that team’s season has been put on pause through Sunday.
This is baseball in the year of the coronavirus pandemic. The Twins played their first game on an absolutely perfect night weather-wise in downtown Minneapolis and, yet, just like every other big-league game these days, it was conducted with no fans in the stands. The only people sitting in the box seats were the players who were stationed behind their respective dugouts in order to have proper social distancing and not overcrowd the dugouts.
The Twins attempted to give their players as much normalcy as possible, using walk-up music, having the constant sound of piped in fan noise, playing music between pitches and having Adam Abrams make the usual public address announcements. There was even a flyover after the national anthem.
But there is nothing normal about having huge advertising tarps covering entire sections of seats in the outfield, or ushers having to chase foul balls ricocheting around empty seats, or having players have to be concerned about social distancing as they line up on the baseline during pregame introductions. Jose Polanco’s two-run home run in the Twins’ five-run second inning and Josh Donaldson’s solo shot to right in the fourth were both met with big cheers — from the noise provided over the sound system.
The most normal thing Tuesday might have been the fact that the Twins got off to a hot start at the plate and and have now scored 33 runs with nine home runs against the White Sox and Cardinals. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed from 2019. (We won’t mention the fact that St. Louis’ relievers retired the final 13 Twins hitters they faced after Donaldon’s home run.)
Athletes pride themselves on saying they can block out distractions and focus only on what they can control. That often seems like hogwash. But these days they have no choice but to take things day-to-day because the alternative would be to constantly fret. There likely is already plenty of that going on considering less than a week into the season 17 members of the Marlins’ traveling party have tested positive for COVID-19 and remain quarantined in Philadelphia.
MLB could help itself by abandoning the plan that every team has to play 60 regular-season games. That is a long shot to happen. Instead, MLB should use winning percentage to determine the 16-team playoff field for 2020. That might not be ideal, but it would certainly beat the worst-case scenario of shutting down the season completely if a few more clubs have team-wide outbreaks.
Hopefully, that won’t happen, but in 2020 being prepared for the worst seems like the best move.
Center fielder Byron Buxton was in the Twins’ lineup for the first time this season after sitting out the White Sox series because of a left midfoot sprain he suffered on July 13 during summer camp. The injury, which wasn’t nearly as serious as it looked at the time, was just the latest setback for a player who has battled injury issues throughout his big-league career.
Baldelli was excited to have the speedy Buxton back in the lineup. “He brings the different dimensions as far as what he can do because of his skill set and his tools and everything,” Baldelli said. “It’s a completely different conversation for him than it is for everyone else, including a lot of really good players. But also the energy that we always talk about. When he’s out there patrolling center field and doing his thing and getting on base and making things happen. It’s a big pick me up for guys. Sometimes it’s hard to put your thumb on exactly why that is, why certain players have that. But one thing we know, and anyone knows that spent time with Buck, played with him, coached him, is that he has it.”
Despite Buxton’s injuries, and the fact he’s 26 and in his sixth big-league season, Falvey said the Twins have not lowered their expectations for the second pick in the 2012 draft.
“He’s had some injuries, he’s been down at times because of that,” Falvey said. “He wouldn’t run from that, he’s not going to shy from it. But I would tell you that when he’s on the field, I think everyone on this call knows he has game-changing ability and we see it. Defensively, what he can do on the bases and offensively when he’s going good. In my mind, he has not persisted because of health at times, but it’s not because his talent or his tools or skills are any different than they were back when he was selected well before I got here.
“I feel the same way about that. You watch him run on the field, you watch him do things on the baseball field, not many people can do some of the things that he can do. Now it’s about putting together a full healthy season and continuing to grow and develop as a hitter offensively. We know what he can do defensively and on the bases … to learn how to continue to take the extra base, steal some bags, do some things to change the game in a different way. I know he’s ready to do that. … I feel the same way about his upside and talent as I did a few years ago.”
Buxton went 0-for-3 with an RBI and struck out once. He came close to making an outstanding play in center field in the eighth on Tommy Edman’s deep drive to center off Trevor May. Buxton timed his jump almost perfectly and had the ball in his glove for a moment before it deflected and dropped over the fence for a home run.