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So many questions in advance of the odd baseball season — here are a few

During spring training, called on account of the coronavirus, the Astros got only a small taste of what was awaiting  them at parks around baseball. Now, with fans excluded from the games, they will be spared.
During spring training, called on account of the coronavirus, the Astros got only a small taste of what was awaiting them at parks around baseball. Now, with fans excluded from the games, they will be spared.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Five questions entering a baseball season so strange that it really should take place in a cornfield clearing in Iowa:

Can there possibly be any beneficiaries of a 60-game season played without fans in the stands?

The Houston Astros, baseball’s Bernie Madoff, come to mind.

Before coronavirus, the Astros faced a long season of being booed and hectored without mercy because of the sign-stealing scandal. One of the great challenges facing fans this season was figuring out how to smuggle a metal trash can through security to bang on it like a drum whenever an Astro batted. It was to be the sound that every Houston player should hear in his sleep as he settles into his road hotel.

Alas, fans have been necessarily removed from the rich tapestry of the game. And baseball will not properly mock the Astros with whatever noise it chooses to pipe into the empty buildings, no matter popular demand.

The Astros will get to serve their penance in virtual solitary confinement. Thanks a lot, pandemic.

Who’s your early pick for Rookie of the Year?

Bear with me here: The 48-year-old Chipper Jones.

Jones is making his first regular foray into big-time broadcasting when he joins ESPN as an analyst. He’s going to be terrific, so long as he doesn’t let the other voices of the broadcast get in the way of his slow-spoken charm and keen eye for the game. And if he keeps it a little on the eccentric side — you know, hit as well from the left side of the plate metaphorically as he did literally — so much the better.

Between Jones and John Smoltz, Atlanta just might become the cradle of national baseball analysts. Talking is now a leading local export.

Like all media this year, Jones will be at a disadvantage by not being able to work a clubhouse before a game for the flecks of gold that gild any broadcast. But he is uniquely suited to keep it entertaining even calling a game from his den.

Jones will be working this weekend’s Braves-Mets series (the Friday ESPN broadcast will be blacked out locally in favor of the local broadcast). Sunday’s game will feature Jones instead of Alex Rodriguez, a net gain for the ears.

It’s a splashy opener Thursday – Nationals-Yankees. But who can the Braves fan emotionally favor in that one?

The first conundrum of the baseball season is a large one. Certainly, a Braves fan would choose to see Washington beaten, since every game in the National League East loss column looms so much larger in a blip of a season.

But that would mean cheering for the team that you just know charters the Death Star for road trips. It would mean getting behind the pitcher — the Yankees prize signee Gerrit Cole — who during normal seasons will earn more than any of us could in a dozen lifetimes. Even during the abnormal season, he’s flush. He makes so much money he should wear a monocle on the mound.

Best to just sit back and as impartially as possible enjoy Max Scherzer vs. Cole for so long as those two starters can go. I’m starving. And this is a feast.

So, they gonna finish what they start?

You know the only thing worse than a dwarf season (although I believe the preferred term is little season)? That would be getting us all in a lather over the restart of what used to be our national pastime, only to pull the plug in a month after a coronavirus outbreak on a handful of teams. That would be a compounded cruelty.

To date, baseball has dealt with this virus better than we had any right to expect. After all, when was the last time you thought: You know, those in charge of baseball really got something right?

Here we go with the next step in trying to bring back some loose form of sporting sanity amid the coronavirus chaos. First NASCAR, then the PGA Tour, then MLS and now another contest in which competitors are occasionally forced into close contact. Look at it like dating, we have a chance here to get to second base in our relationship with sports.

Optimism may be as out of fashion now as the handshake, but here goes: Yes, baseball will play this out through October.

And if they do finish off this thing, can the eventual champion of a 60-game season claim legitimacy?

It will be a season in which any player who hits 20 home runs will be a Goliath.

Any pitcher with double-digit wins might get an express lane of his own to Cooperstown.

All numerical standards are skewed. So, how about a 40-win team going on to claim the World Series?

After 60 games last season, five of the six teams that were in first place at that point went on to become division champions 102 games later. The one that didn’t hang on – the Milwaukee Brewers – was still a wild card. Proof that there can be some kind of reliability to 37% of a normal season.

Of course, if the last regular season had stopped after 60 games the eventual World Champion – the Washington Nationals at 27-33 – wouldn’t have made the postseason. The what-ifs will especially haunt those who know they are better than their slow start. Dear Braves, you really don’t want to be that team.

You can only play the season that’s dealt you. Why play any kind of season at all if there is no recognized champion at the end? Whoever’s standing at the end of a season like this - and a year like this - has every right to consider itself special.

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