Dusty Baker and the Astros players wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts before the 2020 season opener. (@astros)
The surreal scene at Minute Maid Park for the Astros opener included cutout fans filling the Crawford Boxes. (Photo by Chris Baldwin)
This was an Astros opener like no other, but it's still an opener. (@astrosbaseball)
Almost all the Astros wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts in batting practice, George Springer included.
The crack of the bat is louder — and more welcome than ever. When Seattle Mariners rookie Kyle Lewis sends the first home run of the season at Minute Maid soaring far above all the fan cutouts in the Crawford Boxes and onto the railroad tracks, his teammates provide the joyous dugout sound track. When Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander screams out a heads up on a towering pop up, everyone in the ballpark can hear it.
That everyone includes 30 reporters total – and Astros owner Jim Crane. Amid rows and rows of empty green seats.
Welcome to Major League Baseball in the age of coronavirus. Few things are how you remember it, but it’s beautiful in its own way all the same. This long awaited season opener has a little bit of everything on a July Friday night in Houston, Texas. Much of it different. Including the type of social justice stance you could not imagine happening in traditionally conservative baseball even just last year.
Most of the Astros kneel and clutch the type of long black ribbon that’s been part of the Black Lives Matter salutes seen throughout the Major Leagues before the national anthem. A few, including Kyle Tucker and Zack Greinke, do not not kneel. Manager Dusty Baker, George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman kneel next to each other in a tight row at the front of the team line by home plate. That is the heart and soul of the Astros on full display.
No one on either the Mariners or the Astros kneels during the virtual national anthem performed by Lyle Lovett, but several Seattle players raise their fists.
“All we can do is hope by our actions we can make a difference,” Lance McCullers Jr. says before the game. “. . . This is not a political stance. This is a call for equality and for justice.”
McCullers brings up former Astro Tony Kemp’s +1 Effect Campaign as an example of how players can push to make change. Kemp is one of the true good guys in pro sports — and +1 Effect is built around the idea of fighting racism one conversation at a time. You get the idea that the Astros and many teams around baseball will be having plenty of powerful conversations this season in their socially distanced clubhouses.
Everyone is playing in a different world in 2020. Hopefully, it becomes a better world. A fairer world.
Baseball’s New Normal
The games are what the fans who cannot go to the ballpark will tune in to see — in near record numbers if the ratings from MLB’s Thursday night doubleheader opener (which placed former Astro Gerrit Cole, who found his dominance in Houston, in the national pinstriped spotlight) are any indication. The games can still be great, but there are anything but the same as before.
The first thing you notice is how empty everything is. Usually when you drive close to Minute Maid Park on a game day, there is a buzz of activity on the streets. Even if you’re sports writer who arrives four hours before first pitch, you’re still greeted by traffic and people congregating about.
On this Opening Day, there is none of that. Few signs of. . . well, people. The club level concourse never was more wide open — with just a lone security guard standing there. The stands are just a sea of empty green seats — with the exception of the Crawford Boxes, which are filled with cardboard cutouts of Astros fans. Another single row of faux fans stand/sit/lean (what do cutouts do?) behind the Astros dugout. These cutouts are pictures of Astros’ family members and staffers though.
The crack of the bat has never been noticeable. It’s still baseball, still a life raft link to the old normal we took for granted. But there is no pretending it’s anywhere close to the same. Thankfully, no one tries to do that.
“I was listening to Van Morrison,” Baker says talking to the media on Zoom before the game even though many of those on the video conference are in the same ballpark. “He was talking about how it’s time for healing time. This is where we’re at — we’re not healed yet. But we’re on the way.
“We just got to find a way to stay safe during this because we can’t afford another stoppage.”
And there is the rub. In a world where nothing is certain anymore, the men playing and coaching Major League Baseball are more than aware that this four-months-delayed 60-game season is anything but a guarantee either.
Every game might not count quite as much now that baseball’s expanded its postseason this year to the point that more than 50 percent of its 30 teams will make it. But every game counts when you spent four months waiting for the chance to play one — and just want to hope your team will be able to play them all.
There will be no feeding off the adrenalin from the crowd anytime soon. And even road boos can get a team going in their own way. Instead, even at a still beautiful Minute Maid Park, the Astros largely play their opener in relative silence. The occasional shouts — or “Woos!” for Astros outfielder Josh Reddick — cannot break the overall mood.
Something is missing. Something giant. YOU.
“For the time being, we get our energy from each other,” Astros MVP candidate Alex Bregman says.
When Astros hit machine Michael Brantley — arguably the most even-keeled man on the team — hits a three run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning to lift the Astros to a 6-2 lead, there is a jolt.
Still, it’s not close to the same. Not anywhere within three neighborhoods of perfect. But in this year of an unprecedented global health crisis and much needed social upheaval, it’s somehow still sort of wonderful in its own way.
Baseball’s back. You can almost even recognize it.