Quarantine Me to the Ball Game
On July 23 I was surprised to learn that at eventide I’d have the chance to watch my New York Yankees open the major league baseball season against the Washington Nationals, whose stunning World Series comeback over the felonious Houston Astros had helped me get through the October knee surgery I’m still feeling 10 months later. In mid-February I was keeping one eye on spring training as usual, fretting about James Paxton’s lumbar discectomy and Miguel Andujar’s cement-hands disease. But by mid-March, MLB had put spring training on a pie-eyed four-week hiatus, which didn’t stop me from hustling some lumbar surgery of my own for a March 31 slot that proved even pie-eyeder. Whereupon, following the example of the Times’s pandemicized sports section, I forgot that baseball existed for the first time since I became a Yankee fan at seven. It has, after all, been an engrossing year for current events.
On July 23, however, a month had passed since I finally finalized my surgery in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state that would go on Andrew Cuomo’s quarantine list two days before we flew back to NYC even though its meat-packing towns, not Little Rock, were Arkansas’s hot spots. So we were still feeling cornered a week after we were officially permitted to gad about, and Carola thought a virtual ballgame might cheer me up. It did, too—a rain-shortened debut for Gerrit Cole, who the Yanks had deployed one of their megamillion contracts to poach from a Houston that deserved no better. The game also starred not just slimmed-down megamillionaire Giancarlo Stanton but unpoached demigod Aaron Judge and my current favorite Yankee: quick, sturdy, sure-handed third baseman Gio Urshela, a bargain pickup who’d learned to hit in front of our eyes last summer. I also got to see both teams take a knee with BLM patches on their uniforms and then stand for “The Star Spangled Banner” itself.
Predictably, this player-conceived compromise was jeered by racists and anti-racists alike—Jackie Robinson notwithstanding, baseball’s lack of generational cred has nothing on its lack of political cred. Because I rooted for my dad’s Giants in the National League (just as I do now for the Mets—I ❤ NY), my racial consciousness was sparked instead by Willie Mays and Monte Irvin well before Brown v. Board of Education and rock and roll helped me conceptualize it. Nonetheless, I am all too aware that it was 1955 before the Yanks’ racist owners finally brought up star-in-waiting Elston Howard and the Steinbrenner era before the team signed black players the way it should have, and am also quite aware that African-American players remain much rarer in baseball than in football much less basketball (although many of the Latinos who constitute a quarter of MLB rosters are of African heritage). So I saw those BLM patches as a belated leap forward—all professional ballplayers (term cleverly chosen to sidestep hockey) see enough of the world to understand how counterfactual racism is, and that symbolic gesture began the game right for me.
Not that it felt altogether right—not hardly. It didn’t help that the game was called by ESPN drones so bland I found myself admiring Alex Rodriguez’s color commentary—smug s.o.b. though ARod is, he’s also a perceptive, articulate man. But the weirdest thing by far was that as part of MLB’s plan to face down the pandemic by squeezing in a 60-game regular season to justify a playoff bonanza that will cut the losses of owners who are paying players a prorated 37 percent of their sizable salaries, there were no fans in the park. Even on radio ambient crowd chatter reminds us where we are whenever the announcers go mute. And on TV the crowd noises take on visual form not just when the camera pans the stands but when a pitch is fouled off or driven toward the fences. So I found the unbroken expanses of empty seats eerie and disorienting. While some mock the head-and-shoulders cutouts that crowded the infield seats when the Yanks moved on to Philly—some historical, including 50-year Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack in his trademark suit-and-tie, others purchased by diehard fans who want to be part of this weird chapter in baseball history—I thought they not only provided needed eye food but added the kind of surreal touch the moment called for. This is a time when I take my laughs wherever. On the other hand, when mlb.com offered me the chance to make some noise for my team as I followed the game digitally, I decided enough was enough.
But not in the end too much. If you’ve been paying any mind at all to the 2020 baseball saga you’re aware that there’ve been some alarming glitches. Both the Miami Marlins and the St. Lous Cardinals have already suffered Covid outbreaks that ripped major holes in their schedules despite protocols none other than Anthony Fauci, who threw out the first ball in D.C., declared as stringent as practical—and that ballplayers cheated on as would almost every college student in creation and plenty of those reading this as well. Few wear their masks in the dugouts; high fives happen; moderate socialization would appear unavoidable. My own feeling about empty ballparks is that few places are easier to socially distance than sports stadiums—operate at a fifth or sixth capacity, police seating stringently, and provide one tiny island of ease in a time when sociability deprival is becoming a public health crisis of its own. I can see the objections to that, however. And amen to any ballplayer who chose to opt out of this season for preexisting condition or family reasons—fist bumps to Giants catcher Buster Posey, who just adopted twin daughters. But I’m also down with the players who opted in. It’s not just hubris for young, fit guys whose major league careers will average under a decade to want to play while they can. Nor is it hubris for them to figure that even if they do get sick they’ll survive. That’s called statistics.
Right, MLB 2020 could still go south next week. But I’m rooting for it not to, and so should you—we need whatever shreds of sociability we can get. I have yet more surgery due October 1—on my right shoulder, three years late. So I hope I can spend my daytime recovery phonebanking out the vote and evenings watching the Yanks outlast whoever.