SportsPulse: This MLB season is going to be unpredictable. Our experts do their best with the boldest predictions for the 60-game sprint.
CHICAGO — I’m sitting in section 313L at Wrigley Field. Well, I’m actually in a folding chair with a table behind row 10 on the concourse.
There are no fans. No beer vendors. No hotdog and bratwurst smells. Just foul balls clanking off empty seats, the sweet sound of organ music, and a little piped-in fake crowd music.
It brings back the peacefulness of being in the stands at a Little League or high school game, with an outfield chain-link fence instead of an Ivy-covered wall with advertising tarps on the bleachers, a few friends and neighbors gathering on a Saturday afternoon instead of a few stadium workers and employees, but the same innocent sights and sounds.
You can hear everything, from the ball popping into the catcher’s mitt, infielders calling for pop-ups, and, yes, old-fashioned trash talking.
We may be in the middle of a pandemic, where players aren’t supposed to even throw the ball around the infield, let alone exchange pleasantries, but with no fans in the stands, the deafening silence permits players to hear, well, everything.
And in the heat of battle, when you have two Major League Baseball teams with a heated rivalry like the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, you’re going to hear a few things that may be fighting words.
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“I think this is going to be part of this season,’’ Brewer manager Craig Counsell says. “I mean, the dugouts can hear each other and umpires can hear everything. There’s talking that goes on in a game you never hear with all of the fans here.
“There’s a lot of competitive guys out there. Emotions are high. Everybody wants to do well. We’re not going to be quiet when there’s something that happens that we don’t like, and neither are they.’’
These emotions were in full display during this glorious Saturday afternoon for the few dozen of us in the stands and pressbox watching the Brewers knock off the Cubs, 8-3.
There was Cubs shortstop Javy Baez glaring at Brewers starter Corbin Burnes in the first inning when he was hit by a pitch in the left arm.
Two innings later, when Cubs DH Willson Contreras struck out, after being buzzed by a pitch, everyone started to join the fun.
Contreras and Brewers catcher Omar Narvaez jawed at one another at the plate. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo gestured towards the Brewers bench. Baez jumped over the dugout railing only for Rizzo to hold him back. Several Brewers also came onto the field and stood in front of the dugout.
And for the next five minutes Counsell huddled with crew chief Jeff Nelson and the umpire crew, knowing they are going to be in for a rough ride, too, hearing every single complaint.
Benches clear (kind of) in the Cubs-Brewers game:
-Baez got hit
-Contreras didn’t like an inside pitch he swung at
-Benches start yelling
-Narvaez gets hit
-Counsell calls it competitiveness
-Gamel hit an F YOU two-RBI triple pic.twitter.com/pKrdmrc9Ia
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) July 25, 2020
“It started from Pitch 1,’’ Burnes said. “That’s just one of the things we’re going to have to adjust to this year. Without any fans, you can hear every word that comes from the dugout, and the dugouts can hear each other.
“As soon as one thing is said from the other side, it kind of goes back and forth, and it just kind of escalated.’’
There were four hit-by-pitches, with Narvaez being hit twice, and Contreras and Baez hit, drawing stares and angry words each time that were heard by everyone.
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“I don’t know if Major League Baseball saw it coming,’’ Cubs manager David Ross said, “but I think if you’re in the dugout in this environment you’re going to expect some of that. When you hear everything that everybody says, that’s going to spark some intensity.’’
If this were a normal season, you may have seen more extracurricular activity with more than three hit-by-pitches, perhaps someone charging the mound, or even a full-scaled brawl.
But this is 2020.
Baseball is being played in a pandemic where safety and health regulations are the most important rules of the game.
If someone starts a brawl, and suddenly there’s a sea of players throwing punches and wrestling one another to the ground, the penalty will be severe, perhaps crushing a team’s hopes in this 60-game sprint to October.
The new safety and health protocols specifically reads: “Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless a normal and permissible part of game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline.’’
“Honestly, I don’t really care what it says,’’ Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain said. “If it happens, it happens. We’re all going to have each other’s backs. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that, but emotions are high. Hopefully we can avoid that situation because we don’t want to be in close contact. But if it happens, it happens.’’
Still, in a sport that’s trying to show the world that social distancing can work, the last image they want is pictures and videos of players entangled on the ground, with little regard to COVID-19.
So, you get into a brawl, you’re gambling away the season. You’re talking at least a 10-game suspension. Maybe even 15. And in a short season like this, it’s like sitting out a month in a normal year.
No one can take that chance, and to see a player with Baez’s talent lose his cool, Rizzo had to make sure he wasn’t about to ruin the Cubs’ season, too.
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It’s a whole new world, and the trash-talking that was muffled before by the crowd noise, now is on high def for the entire stadium to hear.
“It’s going to be tough throughout the season,’’ Cain says. “But at the end of the day, we have to find a way for both sides to tone it down. We just want to go out there and play the game the right way, and do the right thing.’’
Indeed, but perhaps just a little quieter than usual.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale