The 2020 World Series winner will be one asterisk of many

Jeva Lange
·5 min read

Who do you have your money on: The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers* or the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays*?

No matter what the outcome is of Tuesday night's elimination game (or potentially Wednesday's, if the Rays push the series to seven), the 2020 World Series winner will forever be tinged by that starburst of ink floating next to its name.

Already there are efforts to minimize the blow of the tiny typographical symbol: "A World Series is a World Series, even with an asterisk," argues Bleacher Report, while USA Today insists "MLB's 2020 champion will be totally legitimate." Still, even acknowledging the difficulties unique to this truncated season, and the accomplishment of the eventual World Series champion, there is no future in which we will look back at this season, like so many other aspects of life this year, as anything remotely close to normal. The 2020 World Series winner will get an asterisk next to its name whether it's desired by the fans of the sport or not, and when it does, it will be only one more in the flurry of markers used to signpost this chapter of history as the strange and tragic outlier that it is.

The World Series, along with its sister championships in the other major sports, are among the most emotionally-charged asterisks, though, and for understandable reason; if there were ever a year for fans to feel protective of a hard-fought victory, it would be this one. And while sports are perhaps the facet of our lives where asterisks are the most easily digestible, the asterisks there often serve as a demerit — a use that dates all the way back to perhaps its most famous appearance, to deflate Roger Maris' home run record in 1961. The previous World Series asterisk (culturally, anyway) belongs to a team from just two years ago: the 2017 Houston Astros, who were discovered to have been cheating during the series. And that's not to mention the whole era of baseball statistics that comes with the "grain of salt" designation due to prevalent steroid use. Should the Dodgers' or Rays' eventual accomplishment, by contrast, be downplayed due to circumstances that are out of the team's hands? Hence the bristling at the asterisk in baseball specifically, while its appearance next to, say, "flu-related illness and hospitalization" stats, doesn't get any complaint.

Baseball is far from the only part of our lives this year to be tainted by the outbreak, though. "New statistical records are being set on an almost weekly basis," the World Economic Forum reported in May. Asterisks will be deployed to explain all the anomalous blips: why unemployment plunged so much that it couldn't be contained by a newspaper front page, despite previously being at record lows; why the excess deaths of 25- to 44-year-olds abruptly spiked 26.5 percent over previous years; why the U.S. budget deficit ticked upward slowly only to suddenly equal 15 percent of the total economy. It will serve as a reminder for why school shootings were down, Netflix subscribers surged, and why online sales of engagement rings increased by double-digits compared to the year prior. "When every discipline and academic endeavor, business, economy, employment, sports, nonprofits, and religious organizations look back on 2020, the statistics and graphs that represent the data will be 'off the chart' and with an asterisk for the year 2020," Government Technology explained.

Asterisks are necessary to prevent us from making mistakes with our assumptions, for reading the extraordinary as part of a consistent data set. Artificial intelligence, for example, is already struggling in real time to adapt to the severe changes in how people live now. Rajeev Sharma, the global vice president at Pactera Edge, told MIT Technology Review about a company in India whose algorithm was thrown off by the unforeseen increase in bulk orders: "It was never trained on a spike like this, so the system was out of whack," he explained. Added Rob Thomas, the senior vice president of IBM's cloud and data platform, to Forbes: "When something happened that didn't happen before, most organizations don't have data that represents the new normal." That's not to mention the school transcripts and resume gaps that will benefit from the added context — nor the asterisks that will be attached to thousands of deceased individuals' lifespans as a sad reminder of their probable prematurity.

But nowhere will the reverberations of the pandemic scuttle calculations quite like, well, baseball. "Baseball is a sport of numbers," David L. Ulin wrote for the Los Angeles Times. "Its statistical record is sacred scripture, a connection to its history. Every game, every season, unfolds through a double vision: the action in the present and how it compares with the past." Comparison can't possibly be made to 2020, though. Not only is it likely that the shortened 60-game season shook out too quickly "to determine which teams are the best" (the under-.500 Astros made it as far as the ALCS), but pandemic-adjusted changes to the game, like the universal DH rule and extra-inning base runners, throw off numbers across the board. The year's statistical leaders are a mess.

There is a case to be made, though, that baseball — and the rest of us along with it — should reclaim the asterisk. Yes, there is still tragedy in the symbol's implication, conveying to future historians what the years "1918" or "1929" do to us now. But the asterisk also signifies perseverance: It isn't a period, or the final cell in a spreadsheet, or even the upper limit on an X-axis. It neutrally points out an anomaly for what it is: a deviation from the norm, an inconsistency that is by its very nature defined by what came before it, and what comes after.

Whether tonight or tomorrow sees the success of the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers* or the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays*, the World Series victor need not be haunted by an unwanted blot but, perhaps, distinguished by the small badge to its resilience. An asterisk presents only a suggestion for how to interpret the data, after all. The rest of the narrative is still firmly in our hands.

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