If I could hit a 95 mph fastball, I imagine I’d be itching to get back out on a baseball field, too. Lockdowns are hard on everybody, but they’ve got to be particularly difficult for athletes. If you’re born to run around on the grass in the summer, and catch, and throw, and swing as thousands cheer for you, there’s not much inside the house that can satisfy your deepest desires. Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford has been running crowdsourced single-elimination tournaments on Twitter; yesterday, he was playing off candy bars in order to determine the best (Twix is his #1 seed). He’s having the fun that he can have. I’m sure there’s not much he wouldn’t give for a few hard ground balls in the hole.
Municipal Fourth of July fireworks are cancelled. Taylor Swift postponed the Lover festival. If you were planning an event, you’ve probably rescheduled, too. While the world has zagged, Major League Baseball is preparing to zig. The league refuses to ice the season. They absolutely intend to play ball this summer.
This doesn’t exactly thrill me. I’m not sure what shape baseball is going to take when it returns, but I’ll bet that the game will feel quite alien to those of us accustomed to its verities, and who, each summer day, set our clocks by the league schedule. Plans under discussion include games played in empty ballparks, which feels antithetical to the communal spirit of the game. If we can’t go to the park — and nobody is seriously suggesting that ordinary spectators will be allowed through the gates — we may as well be watching a computer simulation. Crowd shots were absolutely central to the experience of watching the San Francisco Giants during the championship years: participation in the rituals of fandom, sign-waving and kiss-camming, and scrambling for foul balls, singing “Lights” in the late innings in an open declaration of love for the entire Bay Area. It’s hard to imagine a broadcast without them. Every ballpark has its own distinctive personality, and most of that personality comes from the people who crowd in, and shout their heads off for the players.
And that’s only how baseball during the pandemic would feel strange to me. For the players, and the coaches, and members of the large support staffs that follow each club, it’s going to be downright bizarre. Under the plan that looks likely to be put in place, high-fiving, butt-patting, and fist-bumping is going to be prohibited. Batters are likely to wait their turns in the stands, spaced out from teammates, rather than the dugouts, which aren’t going to be used. There’ll be restrictions on behavior between the lines, too. First basemen are going to be encouraged to stay as clear of baserunners between pitches as they can manage. Baseball isn’t a contact sport, but anybody who has ever tried to turn a double play knows that bodies tend to get tangled up. It’s impossible to keep players from sharing air without creating some major distortions in the game.
To compensate, teams are promising to take their players’ temperatures between innings. Field personnel will effectively be quarantined between games; in order to ward against contingency at an uncertain time, teams will carry large taxi squads. That’s a lot of people to swab. MLB assures us that they’re going to be constantly monitoring its workforce, which feels rather Antoinette-ish, given that testing in many parts of the country is still grossly inadequate. It’s worth asking: if professional baseball can afford to test everybody, all the time, why can’t the United States government do the same?
All of this presupposes absolute antigen testing accuracy, which we don’t have. Should a player test negative but get sick anyway, everybody on his team — and the teams he’s played against — would likely need to be quarantined. An already makeshift schedule would need to be ripped up and rewritten on the fly, possibly several times. The long-term risks of getting infected still aren’t known, but the virus seems to stay in the systems of its hosts for longer than we originally thought it did. Those who develop serious symptoms don’t recover easily, and the daily respiratory demands on a professional baseball player are greater than those of us who earn money by plunking words and figures into fields on computer screens. Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell was widely pilloried for speaking out against the pay cut that players would take during a shortened season, but I think he’s got a point. I imagine he’s worried about more than just his future earnings potential.
I don’t want to see any ballplayer sent to the disabled list with coronavirus. The suspension of worry and the peculiar ripple in time that baseball, at its best, is able to generate for viewers won’t be available to this dedicated fan during this pandemic, and I doubt I’m alone. I’ll constantly be aware of the ways in which the players on the field are putting each other in danger. The virus has turned us all into reflexive evaluators of the social-distancing practices of the people we see, and we’ve become on-the-fly risk assessors, too. One of the lessons we’ve learned: if you’ve got to radically alter the non-essential thing that you’re doing in order to make it fit into the world as it is, that’s a pretty good indication that you shouldn’t be doing that thing in the first place. I’ll still be a fan of Taylor Swift in 2021, and I’ll still be a fan of baseball, too, whether there are any MLB games this summer or not. There’s no need for anybody to push it. We’ve all got our hands full already.