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Without Fans, Will Baseball Feel Like Baseball? Sports Anchors Throw Caution On 'Strangest MLB Season Ever'

(CBS New York) -- The MLB season starts July 23 with an East Coast-West Coast doubleheader. The first game will feature the American League's leading contender, the New York Yankees, against the World Series champion Nationals in Washington, DC. The second game has the San Francisco Giants heading south to Los Angeles, where they'll meet the Dodgers, the National League favorite.

Baseball opening day, four months after it was originally scheduled, brings a welcome distraction from the ongoing stress and turmoil. The sport's return also marks another step toward normalcy in some parts of the country, or at least a nod in that direction, for those parts facing a step back.

It wasn't at all assured that we'd even reach this point. Two weeks ago, CBS San Francisco sports director Dennis O'Donnell asked, "Is baseball even going to be able to start the season?"

The answer then wasn't an obvious "yes." Oakland A's and Giants practices had been recently affected. As opening day draws closer, and MLB continues to work through coronavirus testing issues, the season still isn't assured. But its start is more likely.

"My concern, and you look across the league and other team sports, it's not as easy as the PGA (Tour) or NASCAR, individual sports, says O'Donnell. "Team sports are different. My concern is can we get past this. Can baseball actually pull it off, along with the NFL and the NBA? I have questions."

Once the games start, can they continue? The success of the PGA Tour's return is a positive sign, but it's not an assurance. Only time can really answer the question.

MLB has developed a comprehensive plan for the season and how games will be played. Each team will play a 60-game season, 40 within their own division and 20 within the geographically corresponding division. So, the Nationals, for example, will play two-thirds of their games against fellow National League East teams and the other third against American League East teams. Players and staff will be subject to frequent testing and health screening. Physical contact outside the confines to the actual game has basically been eliminated.

The list of rules and guidelines is extensive. But probably the one that will be most apparent to viewers at home and players on the field is no spectators. No fans will be allowed in the stadium.

"This is going to be the strangest Major League Baseball season ever," says CBS Chicago sports anchor Luke Stuckmeyer. "What I think it's going to feel like for a player is one of those late-night games we sit up watching after a four-hour rain delay, where it gets to be 12 o'clock, one o'clock in the morning, and there's 35 people left in the ballpark. I think it's going to feel more like that. And it may feel like a combination between a Major League season and what we have in the College World Series, which is a sprint to the finish. I think it's going to be fun. It's not going to be normal baseball, but it's better than the alternative."

The alternative, of course, is no baseball at all. And while players and fans can be creatures of habit, they can also adapt to change if it means moving forward.

"Will we, by a week or so, go 'okay, I'm used to this now, I know [how] this all works and I can get just as excited about watching the game without any fans'?" asks CBS Minnesota sports anchor Mike Max. "I don't know the answer to that. Generally what happens is, if you have a good team, it doesn't matter how many people are at the game. We will get interest. If you have a bad team, that might sour people. There's no energy there, there's nothing there, the same way they would if it was a regular season and not many people going to the games. I think, for a good team, they'll be able to hang in there and do just fine. If you're a bad team, that's where you may see the ratings drop, the interest fall off. Because now you're watching a bad team with no energy in the stadium. That's a lot different than watching a good team, even if there's no fans in the stadium."

Jumping out to a fast start grows all the more important in a shorter season. "The first 10 games of the season are going to go a long way," says CBS New York sports anchor Steve Overmyer. "Because if you start off the season 1-9, with or without fans to boo you -- maybe it will work better for some teams because you won't get booed. If you start off the season in a horrendous way, you're going to have to have an amazing final stretch just to make it to the postseason. And they won't have the fans there to help buoy them when something big happens."

Veteran teams, those that have faced adversity, may have an advantage. It may come down to something as basic as being able to generate your own energy or maintaining consistency. "The teams that are built on emotion, that need the fan support to push them over the edge, the comeback teams, the teams that live off of those big innings, they're going to be hurt by not having any fans in the stands," says Overmyer. "The teams that are those steady, able to maintain a lead and hold onto it... Maybe older fellows are going to be able to steady the ship a little bit more. It's really going to be a tough thing to kind of predict, which team rises to the top."

We'll soon begin to find out.

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