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What we desperately need right now is a national game of catch. Each of us, across the land, six feet or more from the next person, of course (60 feet, six inches away would be perfect).
Opening Day, or what was supposed to have been, is here, and we’re instead cooped up in our homes, practicing social distancing as if I’m Madison Bumgarner and you’re Yasiel Puig. Today’s ceremonial first pitch? Toss your sibling a bag of Ruffles. That’s about as good as we can do.
This is normally one of the most sacred days on the sports calendar, a time for optimism and anticipation, warmth and joy. Baseball has always had a built-in advantage that other sports simply can’t offer, and it’s this: The start of the season means summer is just around the bend. The last day of school is coming. Vacations are on deck, warm nights, ice cream runs, easy livin’.
Instead…damn. Another day of staring out the window. Another week of uncertainty, of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, of not knowing when the fun and games that provide so much of life’s color and texture will reappear.
The only certainty is that they will. We’ve gotta believe, the way you believe in Max Scherzer‘s fire, Mike Trout’s eye and Kawhi Leonard’s hands.
There is no better time of year than right now. Check that. There should be no better time of year than right now. Because not only is baseball the neighbor who shows up at your door with snacks and laughs and games every day, but it also arrives smack in the middle of the NCAA tournament. How about what Thursday was supposed to have been: Opening Day plus the beginning of the Sweet 16. You can’t pack all that into just any old day.
Our homes right now should be littered with empty pizza boxes and busted brackets the way we once upon a time so carelessly littered our friends’ oak trees with rolls and rolls of, ahem, toilet paper.
Instead, the latest estimates at the beginning of the week were that nearly one in three Americans are now under orders to stay at home, and the news continues to break quickly and sharply. What will the end of the week bring? What will next week bring?
State after state has closed down to all but essential businesses, and as we sit here missing the crack of the bat and the unlikely heroes of March Madness—personal favorite: Sister Jean, who brought me full circle from my introduction to bracket pools years ago via my small, Midwestern Catholic high school yearbook class moderator Brother Ron—that word “essential” is what sticks.
For you and for me and for so many in our circle, sports are as essential as fiber in our diet and hydration in our day, but so much more fun and interesting. For the public good and safety, clearly, this isn’t an argument that our games should resume immediately as part of what is considered “essential” business. It’s simply a proper acknowledgment of a different kind of essential.
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We all need reasons to get out of bed in the morning with an extra spring in our step, and the biggest and most riveting of our games helps provide that. We connect with family and friends so frequently through fantasy leagues and bracket pools, through upset specials and through, “Hey, I’ve got an extra ticket to Saturday’s game. Are you free?”
Since this virus entered March and stopped us in our tracks, how many text messages have not been sent to friends over these past few weeks with fire emojis and some urgent gibberish about what the Dayton Flyers are doing or how you can’t believe the Kansas Jayhawks are losing? How many phone calls haven’t been made specifically to ask one question: “ARE YOU WATCHING THIS?!?!”
Oh, the texts and phone calls are still going, all right. But certainly not as joyfully, and they’re not as spirited. Making sure Mom and Dad have enough napkins and orange juice doesn’t exactly compare to discussing buzzer-beaters, pitching rotations and potential NBA playoff matchups.
Essential? Before COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions, the NCAA had never canceled a men’s basketball tournament since it began in 1939 (nor a women’s basketball tournament since its inception in 1982). And the only other times baseball didn’t open when the calendar promised came during work stoppages (1972 and 1995).
Even during World War II in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in his famous “Green Light Letter” to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Circumstances are vastly different today in that none of us have lived through a near-complete shutdown of everything during shelter-in-place orders. And unemployment now is an enormous concern for so many. But the spirit of FDR’s directive echoes as true today as it did then: During catastrophic times, people need outlets to take their minds off their work and worries.
Like the arts, sports has been that outlet for nearly as long as this country has been suiting up. Our arenas and stadiums have served as communal gathering places where together we’ve cheered, laughed, cried, been entertained, been exultant and had our hearts broken.
On certain occasions, the essential nature of sports has walloped us hard enough to leave lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes. How about Whitney Houston owning the national anthem (“the most meaningful national anthem ever”) before Super Bowl XXV during the Gulf War in 1991? The NCAA playing its title game, pitting Indiana vs. North Carolina mere hours after President Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981 (the decision to play coming only after assurances arrived that the president was out of danger)?
Sometimes in moments of confusion and uncertainty, the simple act of gathering together and holding onto each other can be as healing, in its own way, as any medicine.
When baseball returned following a dark week after 9/11, with it in those early days came illuminating displays of public resolve, from Mike Piazza’s unforgettable home run driving the Mets to victory in the first game back in New York to those who stood elbow to elbow in stadiums across the land, pulling together as one nation, indivisible.
And even at that, nothing comes close to President George W. Bush striding purposefully to the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series in Yankee Stadium with the wreckage of the World Trade Center still smoldering some 13 miles away. Essential? It was a wholly inspirational show of defiance, and those who were there or watched it live will never forget that incredible moment.
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“Standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium was by far the most nervous moment of my presidency,” Bush would say years later on an ESPN 30 for 30.
Breathtaking—both the moment and the enormity of that statement. And jarring now that the bonds that were so important to bring us together are the ones we need to forego as health experts have become the public’s coaches in trying to steer us through this pandemic.
If it’s any consolation, the pros right now are as lost as the rest of us.
“It’s still very surreal,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said the other day in a conference call. “I feel like I’m playing hooky every day. My heart knows where it’s supposed to be, but my head is saying we have a bigger cause that is right in front of us. It’s still something we’re all getting used to.”
“There’s no playbook,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said in a call of his own with reporters. “We’re working off something new and different.”
We’ve risen to the moment and beaten back extraordinary challenges so many times before. When we do it again, when it is finally safe to gather and the sunshine floods our world, oh, how nourishing that warmth will be.
And when Opening Day finally does arrive, the red, white and blue bunting will be more vivid than ever, the mustard-lathered hot dogs more delicious than we remember.
“I hope we’re going to come together, unity-wise—and I’m talking around the world—because of this,” Maddon said.
As for now, maybe there was a time when our pets were thrilled with this whole work-at-home thing, but even the dog lately is looking like, “Back off, dude, I need my space.”
Cabin fever, stir crazy, we’re all showing symptoms as our hearts go out to everyone battling the novel coronavirus. We all could use a clutch base hit with runners in scoring position right about now. Because it is late March, and it was supposed to be Opening Day and the start of the Sweet 16, and well, if one thing is ingrained in our souls, it is that our One Shining Moments are meant to be shared, not isolated.
Be well. Be safe. And see you at the ballpark—hopefully sooner than later.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.