The Commissioner’s Trophy, with its traditional pennants-on-flagpoles design, each year goes to the team that survives a six-month grind followed by four weeks of fierce playoff showdowns. This year’s regular season, by contrast, lasts just nine weeks — but that doesn’t mean that iconic trophy won’t symbolize something important to the winner, Derek Falvey says.
“Over a 60-game season, facing what we’ve had to face in terms of travel and [health] protocols and the lack of a traditional ramp-up into the season, all the other realities unique to this season, I would argue that we’ve faced more adversity than in any other season in my career,” said Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations. “So whoever is crowned the champion at the end of all this deserves it.”
Especially since the route to the 2020 championship now includes a daunting and random new hurdle, followed by a far-flung detour.
Baseball’s revenue structure, especially in this season without a ticket sold, depends almost entirely on televising postseason games, a monthlong tournament that could be worth more than $750 million to the owners, according to Forbes magazine. In order to maximize those rights payments, MLB expanded the field to 16 teams and added a tension-filled best-of-three first round.
And in order to protect against another outbreak of positive tests like those suffered by the Marlins and Cardinals, disruptions which could shut down the playoffs, MLB is planning to play the final three rounds in NBA-style, COVID-free “bubbles” in California and Texas, with players sequestered from the general public for the duration.
If the Twins are to qualify for their first World Series since 1991, they’ll do it in San Diego, not Minneapolis; if they win the franchise’s third world championship, they’ll do it at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, not Target Field.
Globe Life Field, the Rangers’ new ballpark, also will be the site of the National League division and championship series, according to published reports confirmed by a major league source.
“As long as we get to where we’ve got to get. Get to the World Series, you know?” said Twins outfielder Byron Buxton. “Obviously we want to be playing here in our ballpark. Even though there’s no fans, it’s still that comfort zone. … But [we’ll do] what we’ve got to, to get what we came here to do, and that’s to get a ring.”
They’ve already nearly accomplished the first step. The Twins are accelerating toward an all-but-certain second straight postseason, and with seven games against their neck-and-neck AL Central rivals over the next week — beginning Friday, when Cleveland visits Target Field for three games, followed by the Twins’ trip to Chicago on Monday for four games with the White Sox — they can sort out the division race, too.
Central champ or wild card, the Twins will then learn how little the regular season actually meant. A sport that normally rewards excellence over long stretches has instituted a blink-of-an-eye first round that will subject even the best teams, who will host the entire series, to a task not much more predictable than a coin flip.
“We understand that any team out there can beat any other on a given day. Every team has major league talent,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said, and his team’s experience over the past four weeks illustrates how vulnerable every team will be in the new format. The Twins were swept in three-game series recently by both the Royals and Tigers, neither likely to reach October. And one bad inning, out of 14 played in St. Louis on Tuesday, turned a likely doubleheader sweep for Minnesota into a split.
“Yeah, it adds to your anxiety, but it’s the nature of the business. Little things can make a big difference,” Falvey said. “You build a team for success over a long haul, but every year, championships are decided by a handful of big plays.”
And also by staying healthy, a term which takes on new meaning this season. The playoffs will begin around Sept. 29 — MLB, still finalizing its plans with the players union, has yet to announce a definitive schedule — and the league, fearing a fall resurgence of the virus, wants to finish before November arrives. Even with travel days eliminated, that doesn’t leave much room for postponements if a player or two tests positive.
Which is why the AL Division Series will be played in Dodger Stadium and Petco Park, with the latter hosting the AL Championship Series.
“We’ve gotten this far under a very challenging set of circumstances. I would like to do whatever we can to make sure that we finish this season,” said Baldelli, whose players are tested every other day and have yet to incur a positive test. “The last thing that some of us want to see is that we get this far and then something unfortunate happens and we’re not able to finish it. So whatever increases our odds of playing through, of playing a World Series as a league, that’s what I’m in favor of.”
That seems to be his team’s attitude, too. Negotiations over holding the playoffs at neutral sites are nearly complete, according to several published reports, though possibly requiring family members to quarantine for seven days in order to join the bubble has snagged the talks, a report by The Athletic suggested.
If it means being apart from his wife and two young sons for most of a month? Jorge Polanco doesn’t relish the thought, but he accepts it.
“If that’s what they want to do, we’ve got to do it to be safe and to play baseball,” the Twins shortstop said. “I will have to say that to my family, and they will understand. We’ve just got to do it.”