The fake crowds and phony noise were tolerable, at least for a few games. Empty ballparks, too, because it was worth it to have baseball back in some form to provide a few hours of escape from a pandemic that seems increasingly hard to escape from.
Still, it’s been hard to completely enjoy this, a baseball season like no other. Reality keeps intruding, especially as the coronavirus ravages the Marlins and forces Major League Baseball to scramble even more what was a makeshift shortened season to begin with.
Then Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly took the mound in Houston and gave everyone who cares about the integrity of the game a reason to cheer once again.
A few errant pitches. A few choice words. Then an old-fashioned bench clearing where no punches were thrown but lots of droplets were probably sprayed.
And just when we needed it most, a reminder that even during a pandemic cheaters need to pay.
Of course, this is baseball and the one paying the worst price apparently will be Kelly himself. He was given an eight-game suspension by ever-clueless Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office for throwing in the vicinity of a few Astros on Tuesday night in Houston.
No big deal. The Dodgers are loaded in the bullpen and, besides, it seems Kelly needs to work a bit on the command of his pitches.
That was evident after the fastball that Alex Bregman had to duck under in the sixth inning. And then there was a curveball that didn’t quite curve as it headed toward Carlos Correa’s head.
Maybe Manfred didn’t like Kelly sticking out his tongue after striking out Correa. Or maybe he was put off by words that were fairly easy to hear, thanks to the absence of fans at Minute Maid Park.
First, someone who sounded suspiciously like Astros manager Dusty Baker suggested from the dugout that Kelly might think about returning to the mound more quickly after covering first base. Then, after striking out Correa, Kelly complimented him on his swing before adding a word that had nothing to do with his hitting abilities.
For one night, at least, the most meaningless of regular seasons had at least a tiny bit of meaning.
The message was a long time coming, but finally it was sent: Cheat if you must, alleged 2017 World Series champions, but eventually there will be a price to pay.
Unfortunately, the message that came back from baseball was that cheating is fine.
“Wasn’t my best pitch, obviously,” Kelly said. “I guess they didn’t take too kind to a curveball. It is what it is.”
Nobody, of course, wants to see Bregman, Correa or any other player hurt, and the good news is they weren’t. Nobody was even hit, which makes a suspension for the equivalent of 22 games of a real season a bit mystifying.
It seems Kelly, as anyone who watched the video of him breaking a window at his house on an errant pitch, sometimes struggles with his control.
Ironically, the pandemic is partly to blame for the dust-up even happening this year. The Astros and Dodgers weren’t supposed to meet on the original 2020 schedule, something that upset Dodger fans so much they had planned to go to Anaheim and boo the team when they played the Angels.
Just as upsetting has been the lack of contrition on the part of the Astros, who offered half-hearted apologies during spring training for a scheme that won them a World Series. At first defiant, they later said they were sorry if anyone was offended by what they had done, though they didn’t seem terribly sorry about anything.
And while the scheme cost both the team’s manager and general manager their jobs, it’s important to remind everyone that the players — unlike Kelly — never paid a price at all.
The price they paid Tuesday night wasn’t much, but it was something. The Astros were exposed for the cheaters they are, Baker got a fine and fans everywhere were reminded that the Astros didn’t deserve their world title.
Give Kelly — who wasn’t even on the 2017 Dodgers — credit for not letting it die so quickly. And give him a pat on the back for making us care, at least for one night, about a “regular’’ season that has so many teams making the playoffs that it means nothing.
Meanwhile, after the field cleared, it was back to the same new normal. Fake noises but mostly just the sound of ball hitting glove and bat hitting ball.
So quiet that you could almost hear the sound of a garbage can banging somewhere in the clubhouse.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg