Is that World Series champ legit? 3 questions on how a shortened MLB season would be remembered

Yahoo Sports

It’s still unclear if, when or how Major League Baseball’s 2020 season will begin in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The closest thing to a plan, however, involves a 78- to 82-game season and might congeal into a reality if the league and players association clear hurdles on health and safety protocols and salaries. 

We all be thrilled to have baseball back if it is safe for all involved — though there is rightful skepticism over the plausibility of that. A much smaller but more fun point of contention is how a pandemic-shortened 2020 season would be reckoned with in the annals of baseball history. With that in mind, we here at Yahoo Sports gave our answers to three questions on how the results of the 2020 season might be remembered.

1. Would you consider the champion of a 78- to 82-game season a legitimate World Series winner?

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Hannah Keyser: It’s absolutely legitimate. Baseball is perpetually evolving and has changed in radical ways periodically throughout its history and yet part of what we love about the game is the (incorrect!) acting assumption that there is a sort of timelessness between the white lines. 

If you put an asterisk next to one of the champions to denote context, you’d have to do it for all of them. Because there was a World War or because the game wasn’t integrated yet or because of steroids or because the Astros cheated. And I know a lot of people did or do think the 2017 winners deserve to be remembered as illegitimate and maybe those people would feel more comfortable with an ambivalence about whatever happens this year. But from my perspective, baseball records don’t presume to tell us what could or even should have happened in some platonic ideal of a season. Rather, what did happen. 

I care a lot more about the context of a game than the result and this year this year the context will play an even bigger role in the stories we tell. But whichever team emerges from the 2020 season victorious will be the rightful champion, because they were the best at the baseball gauntlet this year. And, whatever else changes, that’s always the goal.

Zach Crizer: I might have some reservations! Look, this is not to say that “World Series champion” will be any less accurate a descriptor for the last team standing in Major League Baseball’s officially sanctioned 2020 postseason. But it is a contention that 2020’s champion may exist on a different part of the spectrum than the 2019 Washington Nationals, or the asterisked (for some) 2017 Houston Astros, or the pre-wild card game 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, or the pre-wild card team 1993 Toronto Blue Jays, or the 1968 Detroit Tigers — champion in the last season where regular season record determined the pennant.

No one needs to be less joyous or less proud of the achievement. But seasons do exact varying standards for crowning a champion, and chopping the sport’s usual grueling regular season in half is a more dramatic easing of the standard than any of us can remember. It is OK to both hail a champion and mean that word a little differently.

Some World Series champions are simply viewed differently than others, as the 2017 Houston Astros title is now associated with the sign-stealing scandal. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Some World Series champions are simply viewed differently than others, as the 2017 Houston Astros title is now associated with the sign-stealing scandal. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Chris Cwik: It’s not so much the length of the season that concerns me, it’s the circumstances. One positive test result will lead to a player quarantining for two weeks and missing games. And if that virus spreads to teammates, some teams could be without four or five key players for a significant portion of the season. If the White Sox are leading the division going into the final month but falter due to player quarantines, that’s going to feel cheap in some way. No matter how the season shakes out, there are going to be plenty of what ifs. That makes me question the legitimacy of a shortened 2020 season.

Mike Oz: Definitely legit. If you are able to win the challenge in front of you, you’re a legit champion, regardless of the circumstance. They’ll still get rings and have a parade and sell the championship T-shirts. Guys will get “World Series champion” credits for the rest of their lives. To me, the distinction is between whether they’re a good or great team. Another World Series champion will rightfully look down on the 2020 champion. They probably won’t be in the Best Teams Ever bracket — unless the Yankees go 82-0, which, knock yourselves out guys. But a champion is a champion.

Mark Townsend: Yes. Not an overwhelming yes, but yes. We're right on the borderline here in terms of games. Generally, my feeling is that as long as every team is dealing with the same set of circumstances, it's legit. What would change that feeling is if some teams are playing at their home ballpark, while others are playing all or part of the season in Arizona or Florida. That could take a unique mental and physical toll that alters things enough to hurt the season's integrity. The number of games matter less than the circumstances.

Tim Brown: The 2020 World Series winner will have:

  • Endured a month of spring training, gone home for three months, then returned to spring training with total bedhead and a jigsaw puzzle habit.

  • Endured what everyone else did for those three months in the middle, including frozen pizzas, third grade long division, Tiger King and neck hair.

  • Played a half-season in a lonely bubble of body fluid tests, swallowing their own spit, waving to the guy idly sweeping out the loge section in the seventh inning and frantically trying to get it all in “before the second wave hits.”

  • Won more baseball games than anyone else, especially when the games counted. There’s a degree of difficulty here — baseball, life, those long-ass cotton swabs, teammates who take seriously the recommendation not to shower — that is immeasurable.

That is a legitimate champion.

2. If things changed, as they are prone to do in an unpredictable pandemic, how many games would each team need to play for you to consider this a "real" baseball season?

Brown: If they play a season, it’s real. If there’s a first game, followed somewhere out there by a final best-of-seven game, it’s real.

See, at the start, they’re going to gather 30 teams, 30 rosters, all those men, and say, “Here’s the game. Here’s the rules. Go win it.”

Maybe it’s 80 games. Or 70. Even 60.

Given the choice of a few months playing baseball or a few months talking to the dog (a little judgy considering the eye guck), 70 games would have to do. Even 60. It’s real.

Is it 162 followed by a month of Toradol drips? No. But did any of those seasons include some dude uncomfortably attentive to where one’s spittle lands?

There is not a season that can be disqualified, in concept, for being too short. Play 50. It doesn’t matter. Let the complaints come from those distracted by the spittle monitor.

Cwik: As long as the coronavirus is still present, it will be tough for me. A longer season would be preferable, as that lessens the impact of a two-week quarantine, but that doesn’t seem likely. If the season is 82 games or fewer, I’ll have a hard time mentioning the World Series champ without saying, “but,” and then listing all the qualifiers.

Townsend: I would prefer 80-82 games. The further you go below what would be half a normal 162-game season, the more I'd wonder if it's worth it to get everyone ramped up for a sprint where there will still be health risks. Under the circumstances, I'd say 70 games is the cut-off for making the season matter. That's exactly half of 140, which is the ideal number of games I'd like to see MLB play each season anyway. Anything less, there’s really no point.   

Oz: Realistically, I’d say 60 games is what I would want to see for a season to feel real. When you start talking about 40 or 50 games, that’s when you can really see a team turn a hot streak into a championship season. We’ve seen teams have a really bad couple of months and not sink their entire season — in fact, one of those teams won a World Series last year. So we have to honor the long game, which while we’re here, I’ll also say if you can’t do 40 games, that’s when I wonder if it’s even worth playing.

Crizer: This part I’m not too worried about. Really any logical and equal setup where all the teams compete over the same number of games is real. If it’s a 40-game season and an expanded postseason playoff, it will be real. It won’t be the same as all the other seasons, but we should be better at holding multiple true things in our heads at once. You know those side tournaments in European soccer that run parallel to the league seasons? This can be baseball’s accidental, pandemic-forced version of that.

Keyser: It’s a real baseball season if they play a regular season and a postseason, if they’re able to finish the World Series and crown a champion before the second wave forces a closure. You can’t render the games that did happen un-real by not playing enough of them. They are, quite literally, real — and no, I’m not just saying that to be pedantic. 

3. What's the best team that could win the World Series but still lead you to question the rigor of the season's attempt to identify a champion?

Crizer: There are scenarios in which I can envision accepting even projected .500-ish teams like the upwardly mobile San Diego Padres or Chicago White Sox as fathomable champions. 

The Colorado Rockies, however, are a bridge too far for me to take the result seriously. FanGraphs projects their roster for 77 wins in a normal season, and there’s no real path I can imagine that turns them into a credible contender. Nolan Arenado can make them but so much better (the Mike Trout Principle). I’d probably sooner assume the baseball was somehow playing to a special advantage in Denver’s thin air.

Could a talented Mets team win it all without having to pass the tests of endurance and consistency that often fell their rosters? (Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
Could a talented Mets team win it all without having to pass the tests of endurance and consistency that often fell their rosters? (Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Cwik: It’s the Mets. On paper, the team has put together a contending team the last few years, but injuries have kept them from reaching their full potential. If they can avoid those injuries in a shortened season, the Mets could be dominant for 82 games. I wouldn’t be upset if they pulled it off, but I would always wonder whether they would have been able to keep up that pace in a 162-game season or if they got lucky the year was shorter than usual.

Townsend: The Toronto Blue Jays. No matter the circumstances, the Blue Jays will be a fun team to watch with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette lighting it up. But even with the addition of Hyun-jin Ryu, they are outside the fringe of championship contenders. It's a 75-win team at best in a 162-game season. That said, most of those wins could come in bunches if one or two of their young stars heat up. That makes them extremely dangerous in a short season. Them winning it all would tell me the right guys got hot at the right time and the season's sample size was entirely too small. 

Brown: There are but six teams that could possibly win the 2020 World Series, because baseball’s sense of humor is a phenomenon of at least that many dimensions.

Because the season will be weird, at best. A catastrophe, at worst. A sniff from a carton of maybe-spoiled, probably-OK, here-you-try-it milk, surely. Because one lucky bounce and a single strong pot of coffee can mean an eight-game winning streak.

So, hello, Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.

The bad news is, you’ve never won a World Series. The good news is, this is your time. One of you. You’ll win, finally. And the rings, with all that gold and all those diamonds, will come in the shapes of, well, you know. Because baseball has jokes.

Oz: It’s the Red Sox. If they can trade their best player, replace their manager, lose their ace to Tommy John and still somehow win a championship, we’d have to look at this season as a joke. But knowing Red Sox fans, they’d definitely claim it as a legit World Series win and rub it in the face of Yankees fans. So, I might actually be rooting for this to happen now just for the chaos of it all.

Keyser: Trust me, you won’t forget there was a pandemic that made the 2020 baseball season a little weird and a lot shorter. That means more room for small sample size-induced wacky outcomes. Asterisk or not, any champions this year will be remembered alongside the circumstances. But — and now you’ll see there’s a theme emerging in these answers — I’ve already said that any team that won would be a legitimate champion and thus the logically consistent thing to say here is: No matter how bad the last team standing looked on paper back in February, they’re the rightful champions and I accept the outcome.

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