It’s particularly difficult to look back at 2020 because there isn’t a single story that isn’t touched by the coronavirus pandemic. The story of 2020 in baseball is the pandemic because the story of everything in 2020 is the pandemic. But when we look back at 2020, there will be other memories, much fonder memories, which is its own gift.
So as we close the book on this difficult year, here are the top 10 stories in the world of baseball in 2020. You know what No. 1 is. But the other ones will linger with us for years to come as well.
1. The pandemic
Obviously, the global pandemic that has claimed more than 1.8 million lives worldwide has affected every aspect of human life on this planet, and a good argument could be made that future generations will find it incredible that Major League Baseball made it through a season at all. MLB did, though not without considerable difficulties, especially with early outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals. The memories of the pandemic will last forever, from the 60-game season to masked managers arguing with masked umpires to neutral-site postseason games to the most staggering change of all, no fans in the stands. Baseball is still baseball without fans in the stands, but it is, as we discovered, just not quite the same. The hope for 2021, and for every year in the future, is to have that connection back again.
2. Dodgers win the World Series
The Dodgers played 32 seasons, and 112 postseason games, after they won that Kirk Gibson World Series in 1988, and one of the baseball’s most storied, revered franchises had known nothing but postseason pain since then. But heading into 2020, after the trade for Mookie Betts, it was clear the Dodgers were tried of falling just short. They were baseball’s best team, by far, from start to finish, and not even a pandemic could stand in the way of them finally winning a World Series … even if it happened in Texas, against a team from Florida. Betts brought back joy to the Dodgers, and Clayton Kershaw, at last, filled that final slot on his Hall of Fame resume.
3. The loss of so many Hall of Famers
Baseball is a game wrapped up in its history, the seamless transition from one generation to another, and few years have seen the loss of more history than this one. A stunning seven Hall of Famers, the most ever in a calendar year, died in 2020: Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Al Kaline, Whitey Ford and Phil Niekro. Their loss is immeasurable; baseball will never quite be the same without them.
4. Athlete activism
For the first time in Major League Baseball history, several teams and players decided not to play in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, along with the widespread social justice protests across the country this summer. In stadiums across the country, Black Lives Matter banners splayed across stadiums, with #BLM stenciled on the pitchers mound. Teams advocated for social justice on their social media platforms. Players knelt during the national anthem. There is still much work to be done, for baseball and for society at large. But there were steps taken in baseball that hadn't been taken in recent memory.
5. No Minor League season
The pandemic didn’t just affect the past and present of baseball: It forever warped the future. For the first time in a century, there were no Minor League games in 2020. Instead, teams had their top prospects play at “alternate training sites,” closed off to the public and featuring mostly simulated games and drills. And prospects in lower levels didn’t see any serious game action. It will be years until we understand truly how the loss of the competition will affect some of the game’s top prospects, but there’s even something palpable lost in the moment. Any other year, fans could go out and see, say, Adley Rutschman, or Wander Franco, or Bobby Witt Jr. This year, they played no games and were training behind closed doors. Baseball’s future is all about investment, from teams, from fans, from players themselves. This year, everything froze.
6. Rule changes that just might stick
All those big rule changes that have been floated over the years to spice up (or speed up) the game? We saw some of those in 2020, most of which were responses to the pandemic-altered schedule. The big ones: The designated hitter in the National League, seven-inning doubleheaders, expanded rosters and, perhaps the largest of all, placing a runner on second base to start extra innings. The craziest thing about all these changes? They were pretty popular. Even ones fans didn’t think they’d like, they embraced. (I personally can’t believe how instantly I adored the runner on second base in extras. Knowing a game isn’t going to last until 3 a.m. turns out to be a great way to get me to stay up until the end.) It’s not known yet how many of these changes will stick into future seasons, but it turns out that fans might be a little less traditional and purist that many have long suspected.
7. The Captain makes the Hall of Fame
It has felt like Derek Jeter was destined for the Hall of Fame since he took over for Tony Fernandez back in 1996, and this year it became official: Jeter received 99.7 percent of the votes, sailing into Cooperstown on his first try. Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller will join him, though they all had to wait a year: The ceremony was canceled this year, meaning they’ll all go in with the next class in 2021.
8. The emergence of the Padres
Heading into the season, you had to wonder how many lives Padres GM A.J. Preller had left: It was time for him to start showing results. Mission accomplished! The Padres not only put up the best winning percentage in franchise history, they were the most consistently entertaining team in baseball, led by Fernando Tatis Jr., a player whose mere presence on the field provides nothing but total joy. As this offseason has already made clear, the Padres aren’t done adding either. They are going to be a wonderful foil for the Dodgers the next half-decade, and are about to become the favorite team of a whole generation of little kids.
9. Mookie Betts signs massive contract extension
Betts won a World Series in Boston, found himself traded (in a move that still makes many people’s heads spin) and looked to be the biggest free agent on the market this upcoming offseason. But it turned out he was a perfect fit in Los Angeles before he ever played a game, signing a 12-year, $365 million extension that will keep a Dodger the rest of his career. The marriage was then consummated with a World Series title. It is very possible that three of the best players in baseball over the next decade --Betts, Tatis and Mike Trout -- will all be plying their trades in Southern California. As if you didn’t need another reason to want to move there.
10. The Mets get a new owner
It’s possible that this one looks silly in 10 years: After all, Mets fans have been hopeful before. But there isn’t much that would shake up the current structure of baseball than a Mets owner who is willing to do whatever it takes to get that franchise a World Series title. If Steve Cohen can back up all his talk so far, the Mets could be the force in the NL their fans have long desperately been waiting for them to be. They sure have suffered long enough to get to this point: Few have earned it more.