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Is a 60-game MLB season, shortest since 1878, legitimate?

Baseball has long sought a metric for each aspect, a data dump aiming to doom intangibles into extinction. Every stat has a skeptic this season.

George Will pondered the meaning of the shortest Major League Baseball season since 1878.

“If you’re an Indians fan and you win the World Series, are you elated or do you think this is just one more insult?” the political commentator and baseball author said.

If Mookie Betts bats .400, would he displace Ted Williams as the last .400 hitter in 1941?

If Jacob deGrom posts a sub-1 ERA in over a dozen starts, would he better Bob Gibson’s 1.12 as the best since the Dead Ball Era ended a century ago?

“Who thinks that anything that happens in 2020 is anything other than a one-off, that they intend to play perpetually without fans, that they intend to confine teams only to their own time zones perpetually?” broadcaster Bob Costas said. “This is all a one-off.”

Yet for some, perhaps many, the abridged, 60-game season is merely peculiar and not misbegotten.

“I just can’t wait for the games to begin -- for the story of this strange season to move forward from beginning to middle to end -- so there is some semblance of everyday life returning,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “And then I will leave to you and the experts to figure out the hard stuff -- asterisks etc etc -- while I revert to my seven year old self, just happy to follow each game!”

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Baseball has long sought a metric for each aspect, a data dump aiming to doom intangibles into extinction.

Every stat has a skeptic this season. No-hitters and four-homer games may be subject to suspicion.

“We’re going to have a blizzard of asterisk talk now,” Will said.

Fans compare players from different eras as if they competed against each other in the flesh, imagining Babe Ruth going deep against pitchers who warm up to hip-hop music and Walter Johnson blowing heaters by muscle-bound Steroids Era sluggers. They rank players against each other from decades apart, even though the sport keeps evolving to make comparisons often meaningless. Old Hoss Radbourn’s 678 2/3 innings in 1884 won’t be matched by any team this season, much less any pitcher.

Like much in life, history will be framed by the winners. Fans of the 2020 World Series champion will deem the year legitimate, historic if the winner happens to be the Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers or Colorado Rockies taking the title for the first time.

Credit: AP
A member of the Salt River Fields grounds crew puts the finishing touches on the home plate area prior to a spring training baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the Cincinnati Reds Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

After the 1918 season was cut short at 123-131 games per team, the World Series was moved up to Sept. 5 due to World War I. Boston edged Cleveland by 2 1/2 games for the AL pennant and won the World Series over the Cubs, who had coasted to the NL title. During the 86-year wait for another title, Red Sox fans didn’t consider that championship less worthy.

“Under these circumstances, people will understand and accept almost anything if they feel that it’s been imposed upon them by the coronavirus and legitimate concern and this is the best we can do,” Costas said.

MLB first proposed an 82-game season starting around the Fourth of July, but opening day kept getting pushed back as teams and the players’ association fought over money in a prelude to bargaining for a new labor contract that starts in 2021.

“We have a dispute here in a divorce, let’s say, over who gets the silverware and who gets the sofa,” Costas said. “Let’s table that because the house is on fire.”

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Because of that, the shorter samples from this season will lead to oddities.

Seven official qualifiers starting in 1942 were hitting at .400 or higher at their team’s 60-game mark, the last Chipper Jones at .409 in 2008 before fading to a big league-best .364. The others also finished well short (Tony Gwynn .377 in 1997), Larry Walker (.366 in 1997), Paul O’Neill (.359 in 1994), Rod Carew (.339 in 1983), Hank Aaron (.355 in 1959) and Williams (.369 in 1948).

Walker and O’Neill were at .417 through 60 games.

Teams thought to be out of it are likely to contend while favorites falter and flop.

“It’s closer to a sprint than a marathon, and just about everybody is in it because the number of games is so short,” Costas said.

Hard to tell whether an abundance of contenders will draw more eyeballs to television screens or attention will be as abbreviated as the season.

“I’ll just feel it,” Will said. “I’ll tune in on opening day, Do I tune in the next day? I don’t know.”