Column: Weird conditions could make winning the World Series this year especially rewarding
Lost in the debate about the legitimacy of this year’s World Series is that it’s already been decided that not every championship is created equal.
Consider the title won by the Houston Astros in 2017.
Maybe commissioner Rob Manfred protected Astros doofus owner Jim Crane and didn’t officially strip his team of that World Series trophy. And maybe an asterisk isn’t affixed to the line in the record book that lists the Astros as champions.
The Astros cheated and everyone knows. Their championship has about as much validity as the home run records Barry Bonds broke with the cream and the clear slathered on his body.
Compare the Astros’ title to the Washington Nationals’ last year and there’s no question: The Nationals’ is more credible.
Which isn’t to say the 2020 World Series champion will have done anything wrong or taken a shortcut. The point is the legitimacy of championships is determined by the conditions under which they are won. At the moment, the context remains unclear.
“It’s going to be different,” Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said.
The differences could devalue the competition. Or not.
The Dodgers are heavy favorites to win their eighth consecutive National League West Division title in large part because the competition is ho-hum.
All depends on how the season unfolds — or, for that matter, if enough baseball can be played to crown a champion.
About the only certainty at this point is that this will be the Yasiel Puig of baseball seasons — unusual in every way, unpredictable at every turn.
Health is always the big question mark hovering over every team, but never more so than this season.
Already, safety concerns have resulted in a number of players deciding to skip the season, including David Price, who was expected to be a key member of the Dodgers rotation.
The majority of the Dodgers’ division rivals will also be affected: Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, Mike Leake of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ian Desmond of the Colorado Rockies also opted out.
His status raises a valid question about the legitimacy of a season in which the best player doesn’t play.
There could also be involuntary absences.
A number of players haven’t reported to training camp or were forced to stay away because they tested positive for COVID-19 or came in contact with someone who did. The confirmed cases include All-Star players such as Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves and Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees.
With teams traveling and players free to return to their residences after home games, positive tests likely will increase in the coming weeks.
The legitimacy of the season will depend on players staying on the field. This is supposed to be a competition to determine the best team, not to see who can avoid getting sick.
The baseball itself will be important.
The product has to look major league and there’s no guarantee of that. As much as soccer’s return has been celebrated around the world, the reality is that much of the play has been sloppy, the extended layoff frequently manifesting itself in disorganized, amateurish defenses.
Baseball was shut down in spring training and workouts didn’t resume for 3½ months. When teams reconvened earlier this month, there were problems with testing — testers not showing up, for example — resulting in workouts being postponed or cancelled. Even when testing has been conducted properly, safety protocols have forced teams to break into small groups when practicing.
The Angels’ Matt Thaiss tested positive for the coronavirus last month and, despite being asymptomatic, says the experience was “mentally defeating.”
The quality of preparation could have a significant impact on the standings, particularly because the season will be only 60 games. There won’t be time to recover from a slow start, as the Nationals did last year after posting a 27-33 mark in their first 60 games.
“Right out of the gate, you have to be ready to go,” Angels first baseman Albert Pujols said. “I don’t think anybody has an advantage. The team that has the advantage is the team that is ready to play mentally, physically.”
Another factor could be the absence of crowds.
“From an emotional standpoint, I wonder if I will be able to play as if it’s an official game,” Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani said in Japanese. “I think the way tension builds will be different. Personally, I think I’m influenced by that a lot.”
The implication was that he thinks he performs better when people are watching. Ohtani and others with similar temperaments will have to discover alternative sources of inspiration.
“It’s not going be to like anything else we’ve done, but at the same time, we’re all going through it on an exactly level playing field,” Kershaw said.
Because of that, managers and players made the case that winning the World Series this year will be as rewarding as winning it in any other.
“The last man standing is the last man standing,” Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said.
Angels manager Joe Maddon guessed that when the final out of the World Series is recorded, the winners will reflect on what they had to endure to reach that point.
“I think it will be an unleashing of a lot of emotion at that point,” Maddon said. “I think it will be a very emotional moment, maybe even more than the typical celebration of a World Series victory based on a lot of different factors.”
Whether the public will have the same appreciation is unknown.
The true measure of a title is in the collective experience of the journey, not only for the players, but also for the cities they represent. There’s a good chance not a single fan will watch a game in person this season. There’s an even greater likelihood that the winning team won’t have a championship parade. But in a season that will be under constant threat to be shutdown by a coronavirus outbreak, there’s also a chance none of that will matter.
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