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Major League Baseball Is Back — Mostly

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Cue the organ, baseball is back. It is opening day for the major leagues. The sport is edging back to normal after last year with no fans during the regular season and a schedule shortened by more than 100 games. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is one of those lucky enough to be at a ballpark today. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Wait, so where are you right now?

GOLDMAN: Where am I, good question. I'm in Seattle...

CHANG: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: ...Outside T-Mobile Park. It's the site of tonight's Seattle Mariners home opener versus the San Francisco Giants. It was snowing in Detroit today, Ailsa, raining in Boston, but it is a beautiful spring day here in Seattle. The bunting is up on the outside of the park, and there is hope, even in Seattle. Seattle hasn't been to the playoffs since 2001. It's the longest postseason drought in the majors, so we are expecting Mariners fans to be on the edge of their seats - all 9,000 of them. T-Mobile normally holds between 47- and 48,000...

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh.

GOLDMAN: ...But like most clubs, Seattle is letting only a sliver of a crowd back due to the pandemic. The average stadium attendance throughout the majors starting out is only 28% of capacity.

CHANG: Got it. All right. Well, at least there will be 9,000 fans. I guess that is a sign that things are tiptoeing back to normal. Any other signs?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, we are getting back to 162-game marathon in the regular season after last season's 60-game sprint. We're getting back to only 10 teams in the playoffs. We had 16 last year. A lot of people liked having more teams in the playoffs. And then, we're back to just having the designated hitter in the American League. Last season, you had it in both the American and National League, where a batter would hit for the pitcher. A lot of fans did like that, too, but now, it's going back to the way it was.

CHANG: Cool. OK. Well, in terms of signs that the pandemic is still going on, what do you see?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, certainly today's news of a game already postponed because of COVID issues. The Washington Nationals against the New York Mets was called off due to an ongoing contact tracing with the Nats. That was a highly anticipated opener between the 2019 champs, Washington, and a Mets team that's supposed to make waves this year.

You know, once again, players and staff have to adhere to a long list of health and safety protocols. But interestingly, the presence of vaccines changes that component this season. MLB and the players union announced this week that they'll relax protocols for players who are fully vaccinated and for teams that have 85% vaccination rate among players and staff. MLB is not requiring players to get vaccinated, but it's strongly encouraging it and obviously dangling a carrot by offering to relax some of these rules.

CHANG: Yeah. OK. Well, as far as the actual baseball, let me just ask you - with so few games played last year, what teams and players are you keeping an eye on this season?

GOLDMAN: Well, the LA Dodgers, of course, are the defending champs. They want to prove they can win a title after a full regular season. Other teams creating a buzz - you've got the Atlanta Braves, the San Diego Padres, the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays...

CHANG: All right.

GOLDMAN: ...And a lot of good players who I don't have time to tell you about.

CHANG: (Laughter) That is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, outside the ballpark in Seattle.

Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.