Sport around the world has looked rather different in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic – and Major League Baseball is no exception.
On Tuesday evening (01:09 BST in the early hours of Wednesday for UK viewers) in Arlington, Texas, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays will begin the best-of-seven World Series after an MLB season that has been like no other.
Here are five talking points as the “Fall Classic” unfolds.
New rules, shorter season, longer play-offs
After months of bickering between MLB and the players’ association, a shortened regular season – down from 162 games to 60 – began on 23 July, with a regional-based fixture list and some one-off rule changes, but fans locked out.
All games were played with a designated hitter – a rule that usually applies in the American League, but not the National League – with pitchers not required to bat.
Controversially, games tied after nine innings would feature a runner on second base at the start of each subsequent half-inning – though this rule did not apply to the postseason, which itself was massively expanded from 10 to 16 qualifying teams.
Players were allowed to opt out of the season on health grounds, and anticipating the likelihood of Covid-19 tests ruling players out at short notice, teams were allowed to carry a “taxi squad” of reserves to away games, while coaches wore masks and teams instructed to maintain social distancing.
However, it is safe to say that the ceremonial first pitch of the season – thrown by top US government scientist Dr Anthony Fauci, now well known for his clashes with President Donald Trump – was also the worst of the season.
Tampa – the new US sporting capital?
Stereotyped as a sleepy Florida backwater, Tampa has only rarely made big headlines in the US sporting world.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ sole Super Bowl visit came in 2002, although the picture of owner Malcolm Glazer with the NFL trophy became a familiar one when his family began buying into Manchester United the following year.
But in March 2020, the Buccaneers led every bulletin when they signed legendary quarterback Tom Brady, whose former New England Patriots team-mate Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to join him. Another play-off tilt looks likely.
Not to be outdone, ice hockey’s Tampa Bay Lightning captured their second Stanley Cup last month, while soccer’s Tampa Bay Rowdies have reached the last four of the second-tier USL Championship, and dream of joining Major League Soccer one day.
In 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays joined MLB as an expansion franchise, and for a decade were the whipping boys of a strong American League East division containing the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox – while their Tropicana Field stadium is often voted as among the worst in MLB.
But after dropping the word “Devil” from their name in 2008, they reached their only previous World Series, losing 4-1 to the Philadelphia Phillies – and since then, despite poor crowds and a comparatively tiny budget, have consistently punched above their weight.
While lacking the Dodgers’ offensive power, the Rays have world-class defence – exemplified by Manuel Margot making a spectacular catch while flipping over a fence (above), while the superlative Kevin Kiermaier patrols centre field – and a strong pitching staff.
Relishing the role of underdog, can they bring another trophy to Tampa Bay?
Dodgers desperate to shed ‘bridesmaids’ tag
Having famously moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, the Dodgers’ sixth and final World Series title came in 1988.
But despite being dominant in the National League West in recent years, the Dodgers have fallen at the final hurdle twice, losing in the “Fall Classic” to the Houston Astros in 2017, and the Red Sox in 2018.
To add considerable insult to injury, both those opponents were embroiled in electronic sign-stealing scandals relating to those seasons. Both the Astros and Red Sox were punished by MLB, but did not forfeit their titles.
While that sense of injustice drives the fans, manager Dave Roberts will be keen to end that 32-year drought and deliver the prize that has eluded his squad – expensively assembled with a payroll of $107.9m (£83.3m) compared to the Rays’ $28.3m (£21.8m).
The Dodgers swept past Milwaukee and San Diego in the play-offs without losing a game – but then came back from 3-1 down to beat the Atlanta Braves 4-3 in the National League Championship Series (NLCS).
East meets West… in Texas?
While these two teams had the best regular-season records, under normal World Series rules the Dodgers would enjoy home-field advantage – with four of the seven games at home – by virtue of the superior record.
However, as part of Covid precautions and to minimise travelling, MLB ruled that the Wild Card (last-16) series would be played exclusively at the home of the higher-ranked team, while the last-eight Division Series, last-four Championship Series and the World Series would all be played in “bubbles” at predetermined neutral venues.
So there will be no “spot the Hollywood celebrity at Dodger Stadium” games.
Globe Life Field, the new home of the Texas Rangers this year, was picked as the World Series venue – having just hosted the Dodgers’ NLCS victory over Atlanta.
More importantly, the NLCS was the first time this year that a limited number of fans were allowed into games, and it will be the same for the World Series.
If it goes to game seven – better call Charlie
After starting pitcher Charlie Morton helped Tampa Bay see off his old team Houston in game seven of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) last Saturday, the Rays will turn to Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell to start the first two games, with Morton back on the mound in game three on Friday.
It means that – should the series go to a seventh-game decider – Morton would be able to start that game on regular rest.
Remarkably, he has now been credited with four victories in winner-takes-all postseason games – twice as many as any other pitcher in history – so would surely be the perfect man for that scenario.
But do not rule out more extraordinary scenes as an extraordinary season ends.
After all, this was the year a foul ball hit a teddy bear in the stands…