Yankees, Mets are back, but this is just first of many tests for MLB

Imagine trying to forecast a season when you can’t even, well, forecast a season.

Will this major league schedule start, continue, finish? Those are mysteries that dominate 2020 more than who will win a division or an award.

But for the purposes of sanity and normalcy, let us go through the exercise and appreciate that the teams at Citi Field on Saturday night — cue New York, New York — are capable of being the last two playing this year.

The Yankees probably have the most talent in the American League, the Mets as much as any National League club not named the Dodgers.

It always takes more than talent to be playing at the end. But never like this year. Players have familiarized themselves to the strained, suspended, traded that infiltrates their season. The long rain delay, the day-night doubleheader, those dreaded two words — Tommy John (sorry to the actual Tommy John).

What is coming in 2020 has no precedent, no manual, no wiseman who has seen this all and can pass along knowledge. Rick Porcello has pitched more than 2,000 major league innings and knows what it is supposed to sound like when heading to the bullpen to prepare for a start. But Saturday night, nothing and he very definitely noticed the sound of silence. Then on the way to the dugout, teammates sitting under the canopy erected behind the home dugout gave him a warm applause and Dom Smith broke out with, “Let’s go Mets.”

“It was definitely different,” Porcello said.

That could be the motto to this season — for as long as it lasts. Or this one from Aaron Boone, “Nothing in 2020 surprises me anymore.”

In 2020 the Mets can be doing something so familiar, taking pregame batting practice, when news begins circulating that the Canadian government has forbidden the Blue Jays from playing home games in Toronto, citing concerns about the coming and going across the border of personnel.

It could have been any other Yankees-Mets pregame with Brian Cashman chatting with his Mets counterpart, Brodie Van Wagenen, and lieutenant Omar Minaya. Just all three were wearing masks, keeping a social distance and the Mets officials were in the crowd behind home plate surrounded by hundreds of cardboard cutouts of fans.

A quick bro hug between Tyler Wade and Smith. Standard. But not this year in what is supposed to be the fraternization-free zone that is the majors. Gary Cohen and Ron Darling, and John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman were at Citi Field, but Michael Kay and David Cone called the game for YES from a darkened Yankee Stadium, from where DJ LeMahieu had done a Zoom call earlier in the day with reporters to publicly talk for the first time about having had COVID-19.

Yet there was baseball, bless it, and, as Porcello said, “I was just so happy to be out there wearing a uniform.” The Yankees won 9-3 as Gio Urshela played a masterful game at third, Mike Tauchman brought a night full of polished at-bats, Clint Frazier walloped a two-run homer and the Mets authored an unsightly defensive effort. When it was over the Yankees celebrated with simulated high fives.

Thus, begins the week in which all 30 teams come out of the cocoons to begin to travel, first for exhibition games like the home-and-home the Yankees and Mets were waging this weekend. Then a regular season that the Yankees will open Thursday at Washington — though even that locale was in doubt until recent days.

Test results released jointly by MLB and the players association on Friday revealed encouraging results, suggesting the protocols were working and personnel were being disciplined in their behavior at the park and away. But the degree of difficulty climbs now with airplanes, hotels and buses. Each day completed will feel like a new base camp reached on Mount Everest, with the summit still so far away.

In that atmosphere talent will not be enough. How do you factor in the shorter season, larger hurdles, greater unknowns? Who has the most adaptable players, the greatest group discipline, the best mental fortitude? Those elements always matter. Now they matter more than ever.

Saturday night was a test track and the players were thrilled just to see a different uniform, play a game. The familiar wrapped in empty stands and manufactured noise. The Yankees and Mets started here and, sure, dream that they can be the last two teams standing. Why not? But this is the season in which for the first time you have to ask: Will there even be two teams standing in the end?

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