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2021 MLB Season Preview: The Return of 162 Games

It was over as soon as it started, more or less, the strangest little season in the history of baseball. Sixty games were all we got, not even 10 weeks — fewer games than a pro basketball or hockey schedule, fewer weeks than an N.F.L. season.

“Last year was a sprint, and I don’t know if everybody was prepared to sprint, not only on our team but on other teams as well,” said Dusty Baker, the manager of the Houston Astros. “It’s actually more fun playing 162, because then, let’s see who’s the strongest mentally, physically and as a unit.”

The new season, which starts on Thursday with all 30 teams in action, offers more than the usual gauzy promises of blue skies, green grass and the warmth of the sun. Actual human fans, at varying capacity levels, will see the return of baseball as usual: a six-month, everyday companion that should give us a new appreciation of the regular in regular season.

“You’d see spider webs on the seats where fans hadn’t sat for months and months and months,” said David Ross, manager of the Chicago Cubs, a team that moved its weight room to the empty concourse at Wrigley Field last summer. “So the fact that it’s going to be all nice and cleaned up and shiny for fans — they’ll get in there and grab a dog and a beer and cheer on the Cubs — it doesn’t get any better than that. I can’t wait.”

The Cubs’ season ended with two home losses in a newly created playoff tier that does not return for 2021. While 16 of the 30 teams qualified for the expanded field last October, this year it will be only 10: three division winners and two wild cards from each league.

The league and the players’ union could not agree on extending the expanded playoff arrangement for 2021, despite the clear benefits. The industry will be on edge until the sides agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, with the current one expiring Dec. 1. The sport might change significantly in 2022; traditional league affiliations could be shuffled, and the 162-game schedule — first introduced in 1961 — may be adjusted.

“There is a lot of history there, and a lot of pride taken by players in playing what they experience as a full season,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ association, said in an interview last week. “This is not to suggest that players aren’t willing to have a conversation about some other structure, both from an alignment standpoint, a how-the-games-are-scheduled standpoint, all the way to the number of games that are scheduled in a season.”

In the meantime, the old, familiar rhythms of the game will be a source of comfort for fans, a reminder of the timelessness of a sport that is easier than ever to follow. From an East Coast matinee to a West Coast night game, hours of daily broadcasts — on TV and radio — are as close as your smartphone. While typical basketball and hockey seasons last only 82 games, and football a mere 16, the sheer volume of baseball distinguishes it from the rest.

“It is a separator, and that’s why, when you do talk about baseball as a national pastime, it is,” said Joe Maddon, the manager of the Los Angeles Angels. “After all, you come home from work any day during the summer, and either put the radio on or watch TV and see your favorite team play. And then there’s all this stir about that night, that game, your favorite player, your favorite team, what’s going on, and you can do that every night during the summer. Every night. You start in school, go through the summer, go back to school and it’s still going on.”

Last season was disorienting for many in baseball, with the 60-game season — the shortest since 1878 — representing just 37 percent of the norm. For historical legitimacy, it was helpful that the World Series teams were no fluke: The team with the best record, the Los Angeles Dodgers, defeated the team with the second-best record, the Tampa Bay Rays. But other teams were left wanting more months to prove themselves.

“You look at it after 60 games, and it’s like, obviously, that’s not how we do this,” said Maddon, whose Angels started 12-25 and then went on a 14-9 run at the end. “We need more time either to get good, or some guys need more time to go bad, and the strengths rise to the top. So it was awkward.”

Players now face the physical consequences of the abbreviated schedule; with no precedent, teams can only guess at the impact of playing a long season after a short one. The Angels will be among the teams using a six-man starting rotation to lighten the workload of each starter.

The old starter’s benchmark of 200 innings may now be out of reach, hastening a trend. Thirty-six pitchers worked 200 innings in 2009. A decade later, only 15 did so. Nobody reached even 85 regular-season innings last year, so few pitchers — if any — may clear 200 now. Position players will also need more built-in days of rest.

“It’s going to be very fascinating for me to track this over the next couple of years to see what true impact the 60-game season has made,” said Todd Tomczyk, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ director of sports medicine. “I step back many times: ‘Oh, we’re going to have so many injuries this year because of the 60-game season,’ but I catch myself thinking, ‘Maybe not, with all the advancements in training and year-round facilities and how we can monitor these guys’ recovery just from simple, subjective feedback.’”

Another injury factor, for games in N.L. parks, will be pitchers in the batter’s boxes and on the bases. The league and the union both wanted to continue using a designated hitter in all games after doing so in 2020, but could not agree on other changes that would have been part of the deal.

Such acrimony, thankfully, is only background noise for now. The main event will be front and center: 2,430 games from April 1 through Oct. 3, with at least some fans invited back to see the show. The teams will gladly welcome the company.

“The fans are what make our sport,” Ross said. “As nice as the stadium is, and the weather and the city, the fans are what bring it all together.”

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