What this baseball season looks like is anyone's guess. But to suggest the best-case scenario is some sort of two-or-so-month sprint to the postseason is a very real possibility.
If that ends up being the case, there might actually be a rare example to draw from in this tidal wave of uncertainty. For that we can thank what happened in 1981.
In that season Major League Baseball decided there were ostensibly going be two seasons, one before the players' strike and one after.
"You’re just so happy. So psyched. All I know is that I didn’t feel ready," said former Red Sox Dennis Eckersley when recounting his range of emotions upon returning following what would be the loss of 38 percent of the season. "I recall feeling not all that great. Looking back it had the feeling that every game meant something because it gave everybody a fresh start. To be honest, I was just thinking about my arm. I wasn’t thinking about my team I was thinking about my arm and how I was going to do this. But I was ecstatic to be playing again."
What happened was this: After the strike -- which lasted from June 12 until July 31 -- the owners voted to allow whichever teams were leading their respective divisions prior to the work stoppage to automatically clinch a postseason berth. Baseball would then return for a second season, kicking off with the All-Star Game on Aug. 9, with teams getting a clean slate when it came to making a run at winning the division.
The Red Sox, for instance, finished just 1 1/2 games out of a playoff berth thanks to a 29-23 record in the second half after heading into the strike in fourth-place.
So, what lessons can be learned from the kind of sprint of a season 1981 represented?
Jeff Katz, former mayor Cooperstown and author of the book, "Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball,"offers an educated take.
"The short second half of 1981 ended up with some good baseball, with many teams, good and bad, within striking distance of the second-half division crown," Katz recalled via email. "Though the split season setup took the air out of full-season pennant races, it allowed lowly teams like the Mets, Mariners and Blue Jays to print playoff tickets in September. (The Jays, full-year, were 36-65).
"In the absence of a first half to compare it to, a 2020 short-season could work, though it’ll always feel like tainted to everyone but the ultimate winners. The 1981 Dodgers don’t feel their World Series win is anything less for the strike-shortened year. There is the real risk, with a short schedule and two Wild Cards, to end up with sub .500 teams in the playoffs. If it was up to me, I would eliminate that second Wild Card this year. Extra playoffs with a truncated schedule would be a huge mistake and look bad."
Another piece of the puzzle that shouldn't be overlooked? As much as players do their darnedest to prepare on their own for the upcoming season, not knowing actual starting dates is an issue. It's a reality Eckersley came to know in a season he turned in relatively the same numbers before and after the strike.
"It just seemed like it took forever and it was hard to keep an edge," he said. "How do you keep an edge? You play catch? After a month it was like, ‘Shoot!’ The biggest thing is to keep your arm somewhat in shape. As a starting pitcher that’s difficult to do."
One of the biggest differences this time around will be the appetite to see the players play. In 1981, attendance dropped in 17 of the 24 cities and, as Katz points out, television ratings for the division series were so weak that NBC didn't advocate for the extra tier of playoffs to continue. The League Championship Series ratings were much lower than 1980, as were the three showcase World Series games even though it was New York against Los Angeles.
This time? It's not a gigantic leap of faith to suggest fans will be starved for the sight of baseball (and any sport, really).
"My guess is when this season resumes, if it does, the pent up desire for baseball that was taken away, not by labor strife but by, let’s call it, an “Act of God,” will not be accompanied by negative feelings," Katz points out.