A parade of players and coaches in jeans, untucked button-down shirts and sneakers passed through the marble concourses of New York’s Pennsylvania Station on the morning of July 22 -- the eve of the season opener. Sporting a mask bearing the New York Yankees’ interlocking “NY” logo, Aaron Boone raised his right fist while descending the escalator to the tracks below. All aboard, indeed.
Their chosen transportation method was an early signal that this 60-game schedule would present many new experiences, especially for a ballclub generally accustomed to jetting around the nation at 35,000 feet. Instead, the Yankees had an Amtrak Acela train all to themselves, enjoying the freedom to roam between cars as they harkened back to simpler times in which the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig rumbled through the northeast corridor. That comfort overpowered any trepidation about being back on the road in the middle of a pandemic.
“Leaving that bubble was a little bit difficult, but this is what we signed up for,” Aaron Judge said. “We wouldn’t have signed up for this if we weren’t aware of the risk and what we would have to face. The Yankees prepared us; they gave us the dos and don’ts to do our best to keep everybody safe.”
As the train squealed into Washington’s Union Station, the players grabbed their bags and passed through turn-of-the-century marble archways, boarding buses that ferried them to the Navy Yards neighborhood of the nation’s capital. Constructed alongside the Anacostia River, Nationals Park opened in 2008 and was eight months removed from hosting Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros, a Fall Classic won by Washington in seven games and the first World Series in which the home team lost each contest.
With the United States Capitol in view beyond the left-field wall, bats cracked and gloves popped during the Yankees’ brief workout as the players returned to the visiting clubhouse for their first pre-series meeting of the year. The hitters hurried through a scouting report on opposing ace Max Scherzer -- mostly fastballs, sliders and changeups, but be aware of the cutter and curve -- and the pitchers deconstructed a lineup headlined by left fielder Juan Soto, already one of the National League’s most talented hitters at age 21.
That day, the Yankees also conducted an open forum regarding the racial strife roiling the nation. The team agreed that they would make a statement, but they grappled with executing it properly. In response to the George Floyd killing, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Andrew McCutchen floated the concept of a unity ribbon, a 200-yard swath of black fabric that would be held by players on both teams. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association swiftly signed off on McCutchen’s idea, which would have the black fabric extend from left field to home plate, and then back out to right field.
The players ultimately decided upon kneeling for 60 seconds, clutching the unity cloth. They would then stand through the Players Alliance video, a recorded narration from actor Morgan Freeman that emphasized equality and empathy, and a pre-recorded version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Yankees relayed their intention to the Nationals, who enthusiastically agreed to participate. When Boone met the media via Zoom that afternoon, he sported a black Nike T-shirt with “Black Lives Matter” printed in large white text across the front, saying that he understood “the heartache that’s gone on in our country, in our world on so many levels.” Several players wore identical shirts during batting practice, and the league permitted on-field personnel to wear uniform patches bearing the logos of United for Change or Black Lives Matter.
There were other changes in motion, as the league pieced the puzzle together in slapdash fashion. Hours before first pitch, MLB reached an agreement to expand the postseason field from 10 teams to 16, announcing the creation of a best-of-three Wild Card Series. Favored not only to win their division but also to reach the World Series, the Yankees’ views were mixed; they appreciated the safety net, but believed there should be more of a premium placed upon winning the division. Relief pitcher Zack Britton said that he thought the expanded playoffs would be good for the sport, but felt the format was “kind of rushed.” “It’s good for the game to create more excitement, but I wasn’t a big fan of the division winners not being rewarded,” Britton said. “If you win your division, you should be given a bye or something to show that you won your division.”
Not much seemed to be on solid ground. Six days before the opener, the Nationals were forced to consider moving the games to a Minor League park, receiving pushback as the District of Columbia refused to waive a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any players, coaches or employees potentially exposed to COVID-19, including visiting teams. D.C. officials relented before the league seriously explored relocating the festivities to the Nationals’ properties in Fredericksburg, Virginia, or West Palm Beach, Florida.
Filling out his first lineup card of the year, Boone wrestled with including the team’s best overall hitter in DJ LeMahieu, who had been limited to a handful of Summer Camp at-bats after returning from the coronavirus. Boone decided to start Tyler Wade at second base instead, telling LeMahieu that he would play in the season’s second game. The Yankees noticed that the Nationals were late providing their lineup. Washington bench coach Tim Bogar apologized, telling bench coach Carlos Mendoza that they were “working through some things.”
The Nats’ internal discussions were soon revealed: Soto, Washington’s dazzling young outfielder, had tested positive for COVID-19. Soto would miss nearly two weeks of the season, later believing that his test had been a false positive, but neither team knew that in the moment. It was not encouraging to have a high-profile opponent flagged for the virus before the first pitch. Might other members of the Nationals also be infected? Boone nudged a few of his players, reminding them to be mindful of unnecessary interactions. Under normal circumstances, Boone wouldn’t have thought twice about wandering across the field to exchange pleasantries with his Nats counterpart, Davey Martinez. Soto’s test provided pause.
As Scherzer and Gerrit Cole worked up lathers in their respective bullpens, the Nationals prepared to raise their 2019 championship banner in the center-field plaza. When the Yankees celebrated their most recent title, the 2010 home opener had been an extraordinary gala attended by legends like Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. The fans made that afternoon special. More than 49,000 of them roared as World Series MVP Hideki Matsui emerged from the visitors’ dugout to claim his ring, dressed in Angels red and enveloped lovingly by his former teammates. The ceremonial first pitch had been tossed by former outfielder Bernie Williams, whose graceful service made him a fan favorite over 16 years in the Bronx. The Nationals would have liked a similar event to cap the first championship in franchise history, perhaps something that incorporated their previous life as the Montreal Expos or paid homage to the long-gone Washington Senators, whose banner from a 1924 triumph again fluttered in the breeze. Instead, the players heard only computerized applause as they jogged to their respective baselines. “It definitely felt odd,” Judge said. “It was good to have some real baseball back, but it was strange with a team celebrating the World Series championship, and none of their fans were there. You look forward to the opening ceremonies, hearing the boos, cheers, everything like that.”
The star of the pregame ceremony was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. A self-described Nats “superfan,” the 79-year-old immunologist had once pledged his allegiance to the Yankees. Growing up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, Fauci debated the merits of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra against pals who favored Duke Snider and Roy Campanella.
In the early days of the pandemic, Fauci had predicted that professional sports would return, albeit with social distancing, protective masks and spectator-less games. That proved prescient as Fauci walked to the mound, waving at imaginary occupants in the vacant blue seats. The red Nationals mask covering Fauci’s nose and mouth would later land in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s archives.
Wearing a Nationals jersey with his surname and No. 19 stitched on the back, Fauci eyed reliever Sean Doolittle squatting behind home plate, then went into his right-handed windup. The heave missed its target by about 15 feet, bouncing toward photographers stationed near the first-base on-deck circle. Fauci told The Wall Street Journal that he had “completely destroyed” his arm in an overenthusiastic game of catch two days prior. Though the errant toss brought levity, Fauci’s stadium visit did not escape scrutiny. While seated between his wife and a friend during the game, Fauci was photographed with a mask lowered beneath his mouth. He’d call the ensuing criticism “mischievous,” claiming that he had lowered the mask to drink from a water bottle.
The professionals could finally take over. Cole described the moment in which he walked through the visiting clubhouse, seeing his teammates dressed in their crisp road grays with “NEW YORK” stitched across the chest in navy blue and white. “It just hit me,” Cole said, “that this was for real.” And so was the Yankees’ potent offense, which Giancarlo Stanton touted as “unmatched in the league.” Facing Scherzer, Judge laced a liner into left field for the season’s first hit, and Stanton tucked an early lead into Cole’s back pocket, smashing a cutter over the wall in left-center field for a two-run homer. Stanton admired the blast as it traveled 459 feet toward a beer garden, coming to rest under a table top.
Cole retired the first batter he faced in his new uniform, inducing Trea Turner to fly out before leaving a fastball over home plate to Adam Eaton, who swatted the first of 14 homers that Cole would permit during the regular season. When the inning ended, Cole barked into his glove while stalking off the field, providing the Yanks with a glimpse of their ace’s persona in a game that mattered. “This was his favorite team growing up as a kid,” Judge said. “To come full circle from being a fan to pitching Opening Day for the Yankees against the reigning champs, that was special for him. He was excited. You could just see in his preparation throughout the day that he was ready to roll; he wanted this.”
A three-time Cy Young Award winner and an All-Star in seven consecutive seasons, Scherzer was dazzling at times, striking out 11. But the Yankees picked their spots, notching four runs and six hits. Judge raked a run-scoring double in the third inning, sending Wade sprinting home from first base, and Stanton struck again for an opposite-field RBI single in the fifth. Meanwhile, Cole seemed to get better as the night went on, retiring 10 straight batters through one stretch.
Eaton’s first-inning homer served as the only blemish on Cole’s line, having permitted one run and one hit through five innings with a walk and five strikeouts. The Yankees held a 4–1 lead and were threatening for more in the sixth inning, placing runners at the corners with one out. With Wade due to face Scherzer, lightning flashed, and the skies opened with deafening thundercracks, prompting the umpires to halt play. The teams scurried to their respective clubhouses as a torrential downpour ensued, flooding the concourses and dugouts. “It was just a terrifying D.C. summer thunderstorm, truly the most intense I’ve ever sat through,” said Lindsey Adler, who covered that game for The Athletic. “It was very funny to me that we waited months for the season to resume, and then here we are in the end of July, and it lasted five innings.”
The delay stretched nearly two hours before the field was deemed unplayable, and it felt every minute of that for the players, who didn’t even have couches -- removed as a social-distancing measure -- to relax on. Cole thought that he had at least two more innings in the tank, but as the West Coast game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants flickered on the television, he recognized that Mother Nature had capped his Yankees debut at 75 pitches. He fished his cell phone out of his locker, placing a FaceTime call to his wife, Amy, exclaiming: “I can’t believe I’m going to get a complete-game, one-hitter in the debut! That’s just ridiculous.”