July 21 (Reuters) - When Major League Baseball opens its coronavirus-delayed 2020 season on Thursday, things will look a lot different than fans of America’s favorite pastime are used to seeing as COVID-19 has led to a number of significant changes.
While players will be tested on a regular basis and must quarantine in their hotel rooms when on the road this season, there are many other changes in place that will be hard to miss when the first pitch is thrown.
The traditional singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch will be missing the backup vocals of fans as ballparks will be eerily empty for at least the start of the season.
The decision to potentially allow fans this season will be made based on local government approval in each market and MLB’s approval after consultation with all appropriate parties.
The sight of baseball players spitting while on the field is as old as the game itself. But MLB has said the practice, which includes saliva, sunflower seeds, peanut shells and tobacco, is prohibited at all times in club facilities and on the field.
MLB has also said pitchers may no longer lick their fingers while on the mound in a bid to get a better grip on the ball but may instead carry a wet rag in their back pocket.
MLB had originally planned to open its gruelling 162-game regular season in March but after staring at an ever-shrinking calendar opted instead for a condensed 60-game schedule in a bid to salvage the 2020 campaign.
The virus-abbreviated season, which was only agreed to after testy negotiations between MLB and the players union, will be baseball’s shortest since 1878.
In a bid to bring a quicker end to games given a jam-packed schedule that has turned the season into a sprint rather than a marathon, after the ninth inning, teams will get to start each half-inning with a runner on second base.
While also potentially ending games quicker, the change is expected to protect a team’s bullpen health and would also limit the time players spend in the relatively close quarters of a dugout or bullpen.
The schedule for the season will put increased emphasis on geographical proximity as MLB wants to limit travel.
Rather than have clubs travel across North America, this year’s schedule will be regionally based, meaning teams will play 40 games within their division and 20 interleague games against the corresponding geographical division.
One of the most notable differences between MLB’s American League and National League has been the AL’s use of a designated hitter (DH) — a player who bats in place of a pitcher — since 1973. That difference will not exist this year.
All NL games will include the use of the designated hitter for the first time in history as part of an emphasis on pitcher health during the truncated season. (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)