- The Washington Times
Thursday, July 30, 2020

The song “OK Blue Jays” has been played during the seventh-inning stretch of every Toronto Blue Jays home game since it was introduced in the 1980s. Right on cue Wednesday, the folksy guitar, harmonica and organ-driven song rang out through an empty park to mark the Blue Jays’ home opener.

Just one thing. This happened not in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, but at Nationals Park in the District.

The Blue Jays pretending to be the home team Wednesday and Thursday — and the Nationals playing the role of visitors in their own park — was one of many symptoms of the weird, weird world of Major League Baseball in 2020.

The Canadian government denied the Blue Jays’ request to play games at their usual home park, concerned about the frequent travel to and from the U.S. that would be required. They’ll eventually call a Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo home, but until it’s ready for them, Toronto’s home games are simply being played in their opponents’ parks.

Consider the misfortune of Nate Pearson. Toronto’s top prospect made his major league debut Wednesday at Nationals Park, with no fans or family to cheer him on. Pearson said his parents came to the District to celebrate their son’s accomplishment, but they stayed in a nearby hotel since they couldn’t attend in person.

Pearson had a strong debut, allowing two hits and no runs over five innings while wearing Toronto’s home white uniforms — despite the fact that the game happened about 350 miles away from Toronto. Nonetheless, he said it felt like a home game.

“Whenever you’re putting on those white unis, man, you feel right at home,” Pearson said. “I don’t care where you’re playing at. If you’re in all-white, wearing all-white cleats, you feel right at home. That’s how I tried to treat it and that’s how everyone else tried to treat it too.”

The Nationals didn’t switch dugouts with the Blue Jays Wednesday and Thursday, but just about every other accommodation that could be made was made. A Blue Jays hype video played on the video board before the game, they got to use a recording of their own national anthem singer, and their batters got walk-up music instead of the Nationals. The artificial crowd noise roared in the Blue Jays’ favor, not Washington’s.

The coronavirus pandemic not only brought on a shortened 60-game season and moved the Blue Jays out of Canada, but also has featured cardboard cutouts in the stands and hand sanitizer-themed home run celebrations.

That handshake — rather, the lack of a handshake — came courtesy of Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius last weekend. In the dugout, he and a teammate mimed giving each other hand sanitizer and then airfived with both hands. “Contactless delivery,” meet contactless celebrating.

On opening day, Chicago Cubs first baseman decided to show an opponent a gesture of good will by offering a Milwaukee Brewers baserunner some actual hand sanitizer in between pitches.

Some stadiums, like the home parks of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, are offering fans the chance to get a cardboard image of themselves seated in the otherwise empty stands, following a trend that started earlier this year in Asia. It can cost a pretty penny, though: The Minnesota Twins, for example, charge $80 for the unique privilege.

Cardboard isn’t the only thing filling seats this season. A photo from Getty Images went viral on opening weekend, showing Angels outfielder Michael Hermosillo trying to catch a foul ball — while stuffed bears and elephants looked on.

In many parks, the home run balls that were once prized souvenirs of a night at the ballgame are now left where they land among the rows and rows of empty seats.

Los Angeles Angels slugger Justin Upton suggests teams just leave the balls in the stands until fans can return.

“It’ll be great,” he told the Associated Press. “When the fans are allowed back in the stadium, allowing them to walk in and maybe at their feet being able to pick up a baseball from the season before.”

Baseball’s “weirdness” won’t abate anytime soon. Hours before the season began July 23, MLB and the players’ union agreed to expand the 2020 postseason from 10 to 16 teams. That’s one more thing to chalk up to the coronavirus effect, and the variety of repercussions that come with it.

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