Nationals Park is where the Major League Baseball season opens when Washington faces the New York Yankees at 7:08 p.m. Thursday. It will be the start of a season like no other. Nick Wass/Associated Press

It’s only fitting Dr. Anthony Fauci is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Thursday in an empty Nationals Park to begin the coronavirus-delayed 2020 Major League Baseball season.

The mere sight of the nation’s most trusted voice on the COVID-19 pandemic before the nationally televised Washington Nationals-New York Yankees opener is a reminder to players and fans alike that the only clear path to a better future for the nation and the sport is to follow the advice of experts regarding health and safety protocols.

Baseball is back, if you haven’t heard, and this 60-game sprint to October will be a season like no other.

Whether it will be better than ever is up for debate. Hopefully it’s an outlier in the long and storied history of the national pastime, but until a vaccine is available, it very well could be a harbinger of upcoming seasons.

Carlos Torres

Umpire Carlos Torres and anyone working home plate will wear a mask, one of the many changes made to get baseball going again. John Bazemore/Associated Press

Along with the ongoing testing of players and staff for COVID-19, social distancing in the dugouts, first- and third-base coaches and plate umpires donning masks, the adoption of the universal designated hitter, temporary 30-man rosters, regional schedules and the new extra innings and three-batter minimum rules, change is in the air almost everywhere you turn.

San Francisco’s Gabe Kapler on Monday became the first major-league manager to kneel during the national anthem, protesting systemic racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. MLB’s Twitter account tweeted the news, #BoycottMLB began trending, and President Donald Trump chimed in by tweeting that any time he sees a player kneeling during the national anthem, “the game is over for me!” But the players appear undaunted. Joey Votto of the Reds was among the players Tuesday who also took a knee, and others are expected to join the protest when the season begins.

Cleveland is likely entering its final year of using Indians as its nickname, a move supported by 61-year-old manager Terry Francona. The organization has been discussing a name change in light of the growing movement to remove racially insensitive names and symbols, like the NFL’s Washington franchise. “Even at my age, you don’t want to be too old to learn or to realize that maybe I’ve been ignorant of some things and to be ashamed of it and to try to be better,” Francona said. Atlanta followed by boldly announcing: “We will always be the Atlanta Braves.” But the organization removed a wooden “Chop On” sign from Truist Park while the debate over Braves fans’ traditional Tomahawk chant continues.

Empty ballparks will greet players as they begin the shortened season, creating an atmosphere akin to the lowest levels of the minor leagues. Noiseless baseball will take some getting used to, so MLB has mandated that fake crowd noise from the “MLB: The Show” video game be pumped into ballparks. This has elicited a range of reactions from “meh” to “oof.” “I’d guess someone not in uniform came up with the idea,” Votto correctly said. MLB reportedly will allow fans to affect crowd noise by “booing” or “cheering” on an app for specific teams. Some teams plan to crank up taped music to fill the void, while some, notably the Chicago Cubs, have littered the empty-seating areas with tacky advertising signage.

Players and managers no longer will be available to meet with the media in clubhouses and dugouts before and after games. Every interview for the foreseeable future will be done via teleconference or phones, with no face-to-face interaction. Press boxes will be limited to 35 members, with mask-wearing reporters at the mercy of teams that will decide which players are to be made available to talk via Zoom. Some teams are not allowing media members inside their parks until shortly before games, including the Chicago White Sox (two hours before first pitch) and Reds (70 minutes), forcing some reporters to miss batting practice and work from their cars. Many team announcers will do broadcasts away from ballparks while watching on TV monitors, getting the same views as the viewers at home.

Despite all the changes, some things will remain the same.

The consensus favorites to contend for the World Series title are the division-winning teams from 2019: the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins. The dregs of the league likely will be the same old rebuilds-in-progress: the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins. And no one seems to know what to think about the defending champion Nationals, who lost slugger Anthony Rendon to free agency but still have the most dominant starting pitching threesome in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

The two most talked about dark-horse candidates in the sprint to October are the Reds and White Sox, both of whom added in free agency after rebuilding the last few seasons. And the most pitied team will be the poor Blue Jays, who were forced to abandon their home in Toronto because the Canadian government saw the COVID-19 numbers surging in the U.S. and appropriately became concerned about the Jays and their opponents traveling from the states to Toronto.

As usual, the Tampa Bay Rays figure to do the most with the least, in no small part because of Kevin Cash, the most innovative manager in the game. The Astros undoubtedly will be the most plunked team in the game, thanks to the sign-stealing scandal that made them the modern-day version of the 1919 Black Sox.

The National League East should be the best four-way dogfight, with veteran Manager Joe Girardi taking over the Philadelphia Phillies and outfielder Ronald Acuna ready to assume MVP status with the Braves. The NL Central also could be up for grabs, with the Reds’ arrow pointing up, the St. Louis Cardinals’ arrow pointing down, the Cubs’ arrow going in either direction and the Milwaukee Brewers being the Brewers, the team no one thinks about until it sneaks up on everyone in September.

Anyone can be good for 40 to 60 games, so everyone has a realistic chance of at least contending into September. No matter what happens on or off the field, baseball fans should prepare for a short, strange trip in 2020.

The table is set. All we really can hope for is a chance to reach the finish line.

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