Pandemic Baseball Day?


Be careful what you wish for in a sports column.

For the better part of two decades, I've written in this space about the need for National Baseball Day, a holiday to recognize and celebrate this country's longtime national pastime. The day would coincide each year with Game 1 of the World Series, Americans from coast to coast would be allowed to stay home with family and friends and — should they choose — watch the Fall Classic together, with the first pitch at 3 p.m. Eastern time, early enough for the youngest baseball fans to see the final out. How is it that a country so devoted to sports and leisure doesn't have a day on the calendar to formally salute the rewards of recreation? National Baseball Day would check that box nicely.
  • Jj Gouin/Dreamstime

So, here we are in 2020, and more people will be at home for Game 1 of the World Series — by choice or by pink slip — than in any other year of our lifetimes. A pandemic has slammed doors shut both on business and recreation, those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from our dens and living rooms doing so, while those unable to earn a salary without gathering crowds and cheering audiences . . . endure the best they're able.

As for the World Series, all games will be played at a neutral site (a "bubble" in pandemic terms), Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Major League Baseball and the state of Texas will allow small "pods" of fans to scatter safe distances within the ballpark. So, yes, there will be some cheering when the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field Tuesday for the 116th World Series. (Alas, the game is still scheduled to maximize ad revenue. So, first pitch will be in prime time.) In a year with so much on hold, can baseball's showcase lift a nation's spirits?

For anyone with a modicum of affection for baseball history, 2020 has been an absolute kick in the teeth. Al Kaline — for many, the face of the Detroit Tigers franchise — died in April. Tom Seaver — for everyone, the face of the New York Mets franchise — died in August. The two greatest World Series heroes in St. Louis Cardinals history — Lou Brock and Bob Gibson — died within four weeks of each other, just as this year's postseason arrived. Earlier this month, Whitey Ford died, the most decorated pitcher in New York Yankees history. Three days later, Joe Morgan passed away. Playing for the fabled Big Red Machine of the 1970s (a team that feature Johnny Bench and Pete Rose), Morgan was named MVP after each of Cincinnati's championship seasons. All of these men were Hall of Famers, all of them World Series heroes from a time that seems further away in 2020 than it did 12 months ago. A packed Busch Stadium cheering Gibson's 17th strikeout to close Game 1 of the 1968 Series? That's an image from a dimension we can't seem to reach, one we now wonder if we'll ever see again.

The 2020 baseball season was abbreviated, of course. Reduced from 162 games to 60, the campaign was more of a sprint than baseball fans are used to, and 16 teams — six more than has been customary — made the playoff field, an attempt to make sure a rightful champion doesn't get erased because of the sliced schedule (and yes, more televised playoff games to pad the sagging bank accounts of MLB owners). But the games have indeed been a happy distraction, particularly in the climate of a national election taking place in the most divisive America many of us have seen. The bitter debate over a Supreme Court nominee not your thing? Tune in to see former Memphis Redbird Randy Arozarena slug cowhide for the Rays. Worn out by a U.S. president downplaying a virus that's killed almost a quarter-million Americans? You gotta see the exuberance Dodger outfielder Mookie Betts brings to the diamond. British writer Charles Kingsley said it best: "All we really need is something to be enthusiastic about."

My enthusiasm for National Baseball Day is unabated. The sport needs new life, younger life, and it's getting it on the field in the form of Acuna, Washington's Juan Soto, and San Diego's Fernando Tatis Jr. But young fans? Casual fans? They're diminishing, turning to more modern distractions (many requiring screens and an internet connection). But we can find baseball again, when we find our new normal. Sitting in a ballpark — under sunshine — is my happy place. I've missed it in 2020. Which means I'll appreciate it in ways I haven't since I was a child, the next time I stare at grass the way God meant it to grow. For now, let's enjoy a Texas World Series with no teams from Texas. (Hey, the Houston Astros are done. So, the year ain't all bad.) Cracker Jack tastes good on a couch, too.

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