The first major professional sports league to return after coronavirus shutdowns was Germany’s Bundesliga, on May 16. Borussia Dortmund hosted rival Schalke 04 in an empty Westfalenstadion; Dortmund won 4-0.
Then something strange happened. Home teams suddenly stopped winning with no fans to cheer them — geisterspiele, or ghost games, as Germans call them. Over the next 22 geisterspiele, home teams won just twice.
The first U.S. pro league to return was the National Women’s Soccer League, which played a preliminary round starting June 27 followed by a single-elimination tournament in Utah without fans.
Then something strange happened. The top three seeds all lost in the quarterfinals, including the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage. The Houston Dash, which had the seventh longest odds in the eight-team tournament, won the Challenge Cup.
Major League Soccer returned July 8 with World Cup-style group play followed by a 16-team bracket in a fan-less bubble in Orlando. Betting favorite Los Angeles FC went out in the round of 16. Atlanta United, which was an even-money pick to win its group, didn’t score a goal in three games and finished last. None of the top six picks reached the semifinals. Orlando, a 50-1 long shot, reached the final and lost to 25-1 Portland.
Two days earlier, 23-year-old Collin Morikawa won golf’s PGA Championship at spectator-less TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
Four days later, Jessica McCaskill fought Cecilia Braekhus in boxing’s welterweight division inside a ring erected on an eerie, empty street corner in downtown Tulsa, Okla. McCaskill, a 35-year-old investment banker who dabbles in boxing and had only 10 professional fights. Braekhus, who at 36-0 was the longest-reigning champion in women’s boxing history and had equaled Joe Louis’ record for consecutive title defenses at 25.
So what does geisterspiele, a 23-year-old golfer and a 35-year-old investment banker have to do with baseball and the San Diego Padres?
And maybe everything.
Opportunity can be a fleeting entity in sports, and the Padres might have been gifted one in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has knocked the planet off its axis but might have aligned stars in the Friars’ favor.
Weird stuff is happening in sports with truncated seasons, with unbalanced schedules, with unorthodox playoff formats, with competition bubbles, with players opting out, with modified rules, with teams a few positive tests away from mandatory quarantine. With no fans.
And here come the Padres with a rookie manager and a roster largely devoid of postseason experience. Weird stuff is happening? How about a franchise that wears brown and hasn’t had an over-.500 season in a decade … winning the World Series?
It’s less improbable than you might think, at least according to Vegas oddsmakers. Pre-pandemic, the Padres were 60-1 long shots to win the World Series. Now, with a sample size of just 36 games (not even one-fourth of a normal season) and an upside-down sports world, their odds have dropped to as low as 12-1.
“We thought there was a good chance that teams could take on different personalities,” says Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. “What we thought was maybe some teams would be more motivated than others. There might be some that don’t want to be there, and some others that are completely invested in a shortened season.”
Baseball, for example, with a 60-game regular season, 102 fewer than usual. It becomes a simple math equation, with a lower chance for regression to the mean for less talented, more injured clubs. Or put another way: What happens over 60 games is not always indicative of what happens over 162.
Take the 1977 Chicago Cubs. They were 43-17 over a 60-game stretch … and finished 81-81. A decade later, the Padres were 34-26 over a midseason stretch … and 31-71 for the rest of the year. More recently, the 2013 Dodgers were 47-13 compared to 45-57 in the other 102. If last season lasted only 60 games, the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
Then there’s home-field advantage, which has vanished in more places than Germany’s geisterspiele. Leagues in bubbles have eliminated it completely, playing exclusively in neutral venues. Baseball teams are still playing at home, just not winning there as much.
Especially in the National League. Through Monday’s games, home teams were a combined 124-126 — on pace for the lowest on record. Last year, NL teams won at a .553 clip and were a combined 128 games over. 500.
That’s significant for the Padres, who, gulp, are one of only two franchises in baseball (the Florida Marlins are the other) without a winning road record in any of the previous nine seasons and have a dismal .399 percentage over that time. This season’s modest 10-9 represents a vast improvement.
The logical explanation for the absence of home-field advantage in the absence of fans is that the hosts aren’t propelled to victory by the swell of support, by the tsunami of noise. But studies in Europe and elsewhere have fingered a different culprit: Officials aren’t as inclined to make “homer” calls without the threat of incessant booing if they don’t.
Psychologists call it conformity bias, the human tendency (often without realizing it) to acquiesce to a group’s opinion at the expense of your better judgment, reinforced in this case by the raucous cheers of 50,000 people. It’s why NBA free-throw percentages rarely differ, home or away, over the course of a season, but the types and frequency of officials’ calls do. Why researchers in Europe found referees whistle fewer fouls and issue fewer yellow cards against visiting teams in empty stadiums.
That has translated to baseball, where an MLB.com analysis noted that called strikes from pitches on the edge of the zone are happening less this year for visiting batters (48.9 percent) than home batters (49.2 percent); usually, it’s the opposite with typically a 1% edge to home batters. Visiting pitchers also get more called third strikes on the edges than their home counterparts.
Major League Baseball has not announced its postseason format, only that more teams will make the playoffs (16 versus the usual 10) and the opening round will be a best-of-three series held at the higher seed’s ballpark. It’s a dangerous proposition for a dominant club like the Los Angeles Dodgers, playing a short series where pitching depth is less of a factor and playing it without fans to influence umpires’ nonreviewable ball and strike calls.
The remainder of the playoffs will be five- and seven-game series that offer less chance to hide weaknesses, assuming, of course, the favorites survive the opening round. But it’s very possible those series will be held at neutral sites, erasing what little home-field advantage existed.
Advantage, Padres. Or at least no disadvantage, Padres.
Then there are intangibles. The pressures of the postseason are different without thunderous crowds, without the crush of media, without waiting for a glut of expectant fans to part so you can pull into the stadium’s parking garage. The best teams have veterans who have been there, done that, who know how to handle it, who can channel anxiety into sublime performance, who don’t wilt under the burden of expectation.
But what happens when that doesn’t exist, when there’s just silence, when games are played and titles won among ghosts?
Weird stuff, is what.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune