As the start of the Yankees-Nationals drew closer on Thursday evening, I felt like a 9-year-old waiting for his first Little League game. I couldn’t remember being so excited to watch a baseball game on TV.
It had been 266 days since the Nationals won the World Series on Oct. 30 in Houston. Ever since I was a boy, I’ve set my mental clock to the rhythms of a baseball season. There’s something reassuring about the steady, six-month accumulation of games and stats. The game is a fond, if flawed, companion.
I can’t say I’m as enthusiastic about the Blue Jays deciding to play “the majority” of their home games in Buffalo. Maybe it’s because the Jays had made it clear that Buffalo was the last place on Earth they wanted to call home during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
For all I know, they looked into playing home games on Uranus. Keep that in mind when Toronto players tell us that Buffalo is a wonderful place to play and makes them feel like they’re in the big leagues. Try not to gag when you hear it.
Look, I realize baseball players are the most coddled people in pro sports. It didn’t help their reputation when the league and players association dragged out negotiations for a restart while millions of Americans were out of work. They wanted to play in an MLB venue. Buffalo gets a date to the prom because it was the last one standing.
Fans can’t attend the games at Sahlen Field, which takes much of the thrill out of Buffalo having big-league baseball for the first time since the late 1800s. And let’s not forget that MLB is at war with the minor leagues and was planning to eliminate 42 franchises even before the pandemic hit.
Do you know what New York baseball fans should be really excited about, assuming they root for the team in pinstripes? The Yankees.
That’s right. As a Red Sox fan, it gives me no joy to report that the Yanks are really scary. They’re the team to beat in the American League, and if I had to wager, I’d be betting on the first World Series between those historical rivals, the Yanks and Dodgers, since LA won in a shortened season in 1981.
That sound you hear is Yankee fans screaming at me to shut up and stop jinxing their team. When I declared them ready the other night, one of my Yankee-loving buddies responded: “I’m just waiting for the 12 injuries the Yankees will suffer in the first week.”
All right, it’s true the Yankees suffered an unprecedented run of injuries last season, breaking the MLB record for players on the IL. The siege began in spring training and never abated. They also won 103 games, their most since the 2009 World Series championship team, and took the Astros to six games in the ALCS.
So they signed Gerrit Cole, who won his last 16 regular-season decisions for Houston last season and was the most dominant starting pitcher in the game. One rule I had over the years in predicting contenders before the season was identifying teams that added top starting pitchers.
You can’t do much better than Cole, who wasn’t even at his best but tossed 1-hit ball over five innings in New York’s rain-shortened, 4-1 victory over the Nationals in the season opener on Thursday. Flipping him from the Astros to Yankees dramatically shifted the balance of power in the league.
Oh, then there’s Giancarlo Stanton, who played only 18 games a year ago in his second season in New York after the Yanks acquired him and his $325 million contract from the Marlins. Stanton, who dealt with a variety of injuries a year ago, looks slimmed-down and healthy. In his first at-bat of the season, he took a 96mph fastball from Max Scherzer and launched a 459-foot home run.
That’s a potential Cy Young award winner (Cole) and a former MVP (Stanton) who hit 59 home runs three years ago in Miami. Not exactly marginal add-ons to a 103-win team. Toss in Miguel Andujar, who played only 12 games last year after hitting 27 homers and batting .297 as a rookie in 2018.
Now tell me again how Tampa Bay is the team to beat in the AL. Sure, it’s a somewhat fragile construct, starting with Stanton. In a 60-game season (a sprint, not a marathon, as they’re saying), there’s a lot of uncertainty. A bad elbow here and there can take down the most talented team nowadays.
But every team has issues in a season compromised by COVID-19. You’d have to be a hopeless fatalist to assume the Yankees will again be ravaged by an historic run of injuries. There’s a better chance that Stanton, healthier and unburdened by the expectations of Yankee fans, will have a bounceback year.
If you’re looking ahead, the Yankees don’t play the Jays until late in the season. They play 10 times in September, including two series in Buffalo — three from Sept. 7-9 and a four-gamer from Sept. 21-24. All are weekday night games.
By that time, the Yankees should be gearing up for another post-season run. The players’ union agreed to an expanded 16-team playoff just before the openers, so it’s hard to imagine them not getting in, even in a wild 60-game sprint. The Jays could even get in, though it’s a long shot.
Good for Buffalo, getting MLB games in the city. Too bad people can’t get out and see the games. But wherever the games are being played, life is a lot more interesting now that baseball is back. It's about time.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.