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"Play ball": MLB returns while fans stay safe at home

TORONTO (Reuters) - “Take me out to the ball game” in the midst of a pandemic will mean a trip to the living room and a spot on the sofa to watch Major League Baseball when the COVID-19 interrupted season finally gets underway on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Oct 6, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Fans attempt to catch the home run ball hit by Houston Astros center fielder George Springer (not pictured) in front of Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) during the third inning in game two of the 2017 ALDS playoff baseball series at Minute Maid Park/ Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports/File photo

Regarded as the U.S. national pastime, ball parks that would be filled with fans and buzzing with excitement on opening day will stand empty as the country struggles to contain the virus that has claimed more than 140,000 American lives.

MLB makes its return mid-summer having been forced to shutdown mid-March during Spring training, with the New York Yankees visiting the World Series champion Washington Nationals and the Dodgers hosting the San Francisco Giants.

What in a normal season would mark the start of a 162 game marathon for MLB’s 30 clubs will instead be a 60 game sprint with a few new twists.

In an effort to speed up play and prevent overtaxing pitchers, extra-inning play will begin with a runner on second base.

Pitchers will also no longer bat this season with the designated hitter rule used by the American League applied to the National League as well.

While the NBA, NHL and MLS will restart their seasons in hub cities under quarantine bubbles, Major League Baseball teams will fly across the country and play in their own stadiums - except the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays found themselves looking for a U.S. home base last week after the Canadian government rejected a request for an exemption to allow them and opponents to cross the Canada/U.S. border -- that remains closed to non-essential travel -- without observing the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.

Even with more than 100 pages of health and safety protocols, some players don’t like what they see or hear and have opted to sit out the season with MLB’s blessing.

Those with under-lying conditions deemed high-risk will be paid. Others like David Price will not - the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher giving up his $12 million salary.

WORLD SERIES FAVOURITES

Even without Price, who along with 2018 American League most valuable player Mookie Betts was obtained in a close season trade with the Boston Red Sox, the Dodgers remain favourites to return to the World Series for a third time in four years.

“I think the only thing we’ve got to work on is our end-of-the-game celebrations,” said Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger, the reigning National League MVP. “We don’t know what to do.”

On the other coast the Yankees, who added Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole (20-5) to their starting rotation, look like strong contenders to get back to the World Series for the first time since 2009.

The Bronx Bombers may have benefited more than any other team from the COVID-19 hiatus. Sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton along with James Paxton and Aaron Hicks have all recovered from injuries that otherwise would have sidelined them if the season had started as scheduled.

Until the pandemic the Houston Astros were placed to be the biggest storyline of the 2020 season after a sign stealing scandal.

The Astros can still expect payback from opposing teams but they will not have to deal with the relentless heckling at the stadiums with no fans in the stands.

Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge

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