Tonight, it's a familiar moment in an otherwise strange baseball season. Game One of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. First pitch is at 8:09 p.m. ET.
Major League Baseball shortened its regular season from the usual 162-games to just 60 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The typical baseball marathon turned into a sprint. Games were played in teams' home stadiums with no fans (except for those cardboard cut-outs). The stillness of the empty ballparks meant every utterance (expletives or otherwise) could be heard clearly on television broadcasts. Some teams even experimented with piping in fake fan noise.
Like 2020 in general, it was a season like no other. Early COVID outbreaks almost scuttled MLB's plans altogether when a slew of positive cases hit the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. The cases rolled through the teams and the teams they played causing postponements and delays.
But then, week after week, baseball conducted thousands of coronavirus tests of players and team staff. Altogether, there were only 91 positive test results of players and staff members among the 30 teams. The tenuous season found a way to move ahead. Speaking before the World Series, L.A. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner credited players. "For being responsible and making good choices and doing everything that we had to do to ensure that the season was able to go on."
It should be a treat of a World Series. The teams couldn't be more different in terms of their payroll, TV markets and fan base sizes. Despite all of that, the squads are very evenly matched. They both won their respective league championship series in the seventh and deciding games. The Dodgers are baseball's offensive juggernaut and they've made their third World Series in four years. Of course, the Dodgers haven't won the title since 1988. Yes, that's 32 long years for L.A.s long-suffering fans. For Tampa Bay, this is just its second trip to the World Series. The Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.
The Dodgers were the best team in baseball this season (43-17). They also had the second highest payroll at $108 million. Tampa Bay is at the other end of the spectrum. The Rays annual payroll was about $28 million (ranking them 28th). Despite the pay inequities, both teams have a deep bench of quality pitchers and hitters, and play stellar defense.
This is the first time this season the Tampa Bay Rays have played in front of fans. (Los Angeles played before fans in the National League Championship Series). Rays shortstop Will Adames has embraced the mantra of pandemic baseball: be flexible. "Whatever is the situation you have to adjust and y'know continue to do what you have to do to stay here and y'know now that we're going to play in front [of] fans, it's going to be exciting again."
The stadium will seat about a quarter of its typical capacity. Fans will sit in pods — four seats together — with at least six-feet of social distance between each pod (empty seats will be zip tied closed). Masks are required at all times except when eating or drinking.
Another first — for the first time since 1944, the games will happen at a single site, to reduce the coronavirus risk by eliminating travel and keep teams in a protective bubble. The neutral ballpark is Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. A quarter-filled stadium is better, and more lucrative, than nothing. And a chance to end an abnormal season, a bit more normally.
All games will be televised on Fox.
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
The final act of baseball's strangest season begins tonight in a unique setting. The Los Angeles Dodgers play the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series. And for the first time since 1944, all of the games will happen at a single site to reduce the coronavirus risk. But there will be familiar sights and sounds at the neutral ballpark in Arlington, Texas - real baseball fans. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: One byproduct of the no-fan regular season - the ability at times to hear every utterance on the field, including the stuff broadcasters try to clean up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED ATHLETE #1: [Expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: We apologize.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Ground number two.
UNIDENTIFIED ATHLETE #2: [Expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Sorry.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: ...Boom for the second out.
UNIDENTIFIED ATHLETE #3: [Expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Sorry.
GOLDMAN: Good news for all those harried commentators - fans and all their curse-canceling noise are back.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: Thanks for coming to tonight's game. It is baseball time in Texas.
GOLDMAN: They actually came back before the World Series. The stadium in Arlington was about a quarter full for all seven of the National League Championship Series games between Los Angeles and Atlanta. Tim Ciesco from Arlington was there for game one.
TIM CIESCO: Even with the limited crowd, I think at this point I was just so happy that I got to go out and see a live sporting event. To me, the evening was perfect with all its imperfections, I guess.
GOLDMAN: COVID protocols required him to wear a mask, except when eating or drinking. Ushers roamed the stands reminding people. He could sit only in his pod, four seats next to each other. His pod was at one end of a row. There was a different pod at the other end with about a dozen free seats in between zip-tied to keep people out of them.
CIESCO: I never felt, wow, this was a bad decision on my part; I shouldn't have come here.
GOLDMAN: While World Series fans adjust to the same restrictions, one team on the field will adjust to fans. Tampa Bay played its American League Championship Series in California, where state law doesn't allow spectators at events. In Texas, the Rays will play in front of people for the first time this season. Rays shortstop Willy Adames embraces the mantra of pandemic baseball - be flexible.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILLY ADAMES: Whatever is the situation, you have to adjust and, you know, continue to do what you have to do to stay here. And, you know, now that we're going to play in front of fans, it's going to be exciting again.
GOLDMAN: Baseball's excited to get at least some World Series customers in seats, buying tickets, concessions, merchandise. A quarter-filled park is better and more lucrative than nothing and a chance to end an abnormal season a bit more normally.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.