Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Max Muncy

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, left, and Max Muncy, right, put their hands on Mookie Betts during the national anthem prior to an Opening Day game Thursday in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press


The fans behind home plate at Dodger Stadium were fake, and so were the cheers in the nation’s capital.

The games themselves seemed real enough, assuming you weren’t looking too closely. And Nationals star Juan Soto’s positive test for coronavirus was all too real.

Baseball got the Opening Day many thought might never come this year, though it wasn’t exactly time to celebrate. Soto’s last-minute absence Thursday as the defending champions opened play at home was a grim reminder – as if any were needed – that the virus will overshadow anything that happens on the field this season.

Watching from a distance, you might wonder why they were even trying. While the baseball was decent enough it’s hard to imagine anyone missing the game so much that they’ll find this version of it compelling over a 60-game season.

If there was a feel, it was artificial, like the Xbox had been accidentally activated and a video game was on the big screen at home. Even the intense storm that ended play in the sixth inning in Washington seemed like it had been programmed on a Hollywood back lot to ensure a Yankee win.

And, really, how interesting can cardboard people be after a few games even if that was a likeness of Tommy Lasorda behind home plate watching his beloved Dodgers beat the hated Giants.

Still, there was cause for die-hard fans everywhere to celebrate.

Giancarlo Stanton’s first inning home run was thrilling to Yankee fans, who have to be dreaming he might hit the magic mark of 20 this year. Gerrit Cole looked like he was worth every bit of the huge new contract that lured him to the Bronx, and at this rate might lead the league with eight or nine wins.

In Los Angeles, all the cardboard cutout fans had smiles on their faces, and with good reason. It doesn’t rain in Southern California, so none of them were going to get soggy.

And, check the math on this, but the Yankees and Dodgers might have both just clinched a spot in the expanded playoffs that were hastily added just before the opening pitch.

No, it’s not baseball as we know it. It can’t be, as long as the virus is ravaging the country and short-sighted people remain in charge of what is left of America’s pastime.

Games are supposed to be a celebration. Regular seasons are supposed to mean something. Pitchers are supposed to hit, at least in the National League.

Most of all, fans are supposed to be there to offer real cheers and live and die with every pitch.

“You dream your whole life about coming and playing in a big stadium with all the fans and then there’s none,” Dodger pitcher Walker Buehler said from the dugout. “It’s going to be an interesting one for sure.”

Real noise is from another time, which right now seems so far away. A virus that knows no boundaries drastically changed the complexion of the season, and may yet end it before scheduled.

Even if the games go into October, the season may not end well. The expanded playoffs announced just before first pitch in Washington means 16 of 30 teams will be in the postseason. The plan was heralded by Commissioner Rob Manfred as something that will add excitement to the season, but the entire season will be one to quickly forget if a team with a losing record wins the World Series.

It’s hard to fault baseball for making the effort, even if it can do only so much. There’s something about watching baseball again on a summer night that at least hints at a return to normal, even if that normal may no longer be there.

Dodger Stadium was beautiful as usual in the twilight, though even the cardboard fans had to be concerned about ace Clayton Kershaw being scratched with a bad back. At least it wasn’t the virus, they might have said to each other, which would mean something else indeed.

Unfortunately, no one but the cutouts and a few people allowed in Dodger Stadium saw the start of the season on the West Coast. ESPN was so busy airing commercials that the first batter was already on base when it came back on the air.

The network did rebound to air two significant expletives by the Dodgers Joc Pederson after grounding out in the sixth inning, for what that’s worth.

In both Washington and LA there were tributes to the Black Lives Matter movement. Several Giants took a knee during the national anthem as did Dodger superstar Mookie Betts, with Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy placing a hand on each shoulder of their new teammate.

There was a lot to take in on this, the most unusual of opening days. Baseball was in the spotlight, a luxury it won’t have once the NBA and NHL begin play for real.

It worked for the most part, at least for one night.

But even a short season can get awfully long in a hurry.

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