Un-Opening Day

(via Denise Krebs)

As I write this on the afternoon of March 12, the MLB.com scoreboard still hasn’t changed. Navigating to the page takes you directly to March 26, 2020, where there is a full slate of games scheduled for all 30 big-league teams: first, the Tigers/Indians and Nationals/Mets contests, with their first pitches at 1:10 Eastern, followed by Royals/White Sox and Cubs/Brewers, and so on and so forth. They’re all there, the comfortingly predictable mix of divisional battles, divisional non-battles, and interleague oddities; you can click the links to see a preview of each game, some of which have Opening Day starters and hitting matchups listed. At least on this one page, at this one point in time, Opening Day is suspended in a moment where it still might happen like normal.

Of course, by now we know it won’t — that is, it’ll probably happen eventually, but not on March 26, not on a date we can predict right now, not the way that’s been prepared for and intended by so many people for the last six months. This morning — yesterday morning, by the time you read this — MLB announced the cancellation of all remaining spring training games and the postponement of Opening Day for at least two weeks in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. This followed similar announcements for baseball in Japan and Korea. That, only a few days ago, MLB asserted its intention “to play spring training and regular season games as scheduled” shows how quickly the situation in the United States has changed, and how quickly pressure mounted for MLB to respond to the pandemic.

For weeks, as new cases have continued to be confirmed and fear around the pandemic has spread, questions have been raised about how MLB should respond, if at all — if spring training should have been played to empty stadiums, if the rapid approach of Opening Day and its attendant crowds should be addressed, if baseball could continue as normal in the face of global panic. Today, we have an answer.

So what do we do now?

***

One only has to do a cursory search for the term “Opening Day” to get a sense of how sentimental baseball fans get about the start of the season. When even the arrival of pitchers and catchers at spring training is cause for celebration, how much more momentous does the beginning of baseball that “counts” feel for a fan? Many people find just the idea of spending any time on sports ridiculous, let alone caring. For millions of people, though, that day circled on the calendar marks the beginning of a summer and autumn routine built around the undulating rhythms of daily baseball, the steady flow of news and transactions, the daily rituals of statistic-checking and box-score-perusing and article-reading. Countless social communities and friend groups, both online and in-person, are formed around the spectacle of public sporting events. The beginning of the baseball season is the beginning of the end of seasonal depression, the beginning of days at the ballpark with friends, of having something to look forward to almost every single day until the end of October.

“Baseball is coming!” “Opening Day is here!” — they’re like spells, conjuring the feelings accrued over years and lifetimes of baseball experiences. Even if those experiences constitute little more than being a little less bored on any given day, having a few more tweets to respond to or articles to comment on, those insignificant additions to the quotidian add up to something important: the small distractions that make life bearable.

Sometimes, of course, it feels like we have too many of those distractions. Sometimes it feels like it would be nice if we could turn it all off — even the fun stuff. I think this has probably always been a thing people have felt, this sense of being overwhelmed by a million otherwise innocuous things, but it certainly has become more prominent in a world wherein we are all but obligated to subject ourselves to a constant barrage of ever-changing information. Over the past winter, with the various scandals that have assailed baseball and the frustrating discussions they’ve provoked, I’ve at various points wished I could tune it all out. There are so many problems with baseball, and at the end of the day, it’s baseball. Why subject myself to so much grievance over an entertainment?

But losing that entertainment feels like cause for mourning. It has caused mourning — a look at social media can tell you as much within a few minutes. It’s the opposite of the conjurations of Opening Day, of the start of a new season of baseball. It was a conjuration of bleak anxiety. And beyond the emptiness facing fans, there are very real implications for the thousands of people whose livelihoods are tied to the game. The minor leaguers who themselves paid to be at spring training; the freelancers whose paychecks depend on there being events to cover; the hourly workers at stadiums, the stadium-adjacent businesses whose clientele depend on there being baseball-hungry crowds. All are now faced with an uncertain future that, just a week ago, they’d been assured was not happening. Fear spreads quickly, but it thrives in isolation — and isolation is exactly where we seem to be headed.

***

I was more excited for this year’s Opening Day than I have been for any other. I was thinking over the offseason about the fact that I’d been to a short-season minor league Opening Day, but never a major-league one; I’d experienced the hubbub through the medium of a computer screen, but never in person. And this year happened to offer a particularly favorable confluence of circumstances: both of my brothers, for the first time, would be available to take a trip down to Seattle for the first day of the season. We bought our tickets, made our plans, all months in advance.

That’s not happening now. I will be spending March 26 in my room, working as normal. This is the right thing to do, and I’m not overly sad about it. It would be incomprehensibly selfish to jeopardize the health of others so that I could have a nice day at the ballpark. And Opening Day will happen at some currently unknown point, and at that point, I’ll probably still go. But who’s to say my brothers will? My plans have been replaced by persistent worry: about the health of my loved ones, about the health of the people who will be most impacted by this disease. People with underlying illnesses, elderly people, people who still need to go out to work every day. Health care workers, people who lack the resources to access health care. There is so much to worry about. And our most reliable antidotes to sadness, too, have been canceled. It is all too easy to lie back into the dark, eaten up by stress — to feel alone in all of it.

***

There are so many people who credit baseball with, if not their lives, something close to that. It goes beyond the people who dedicate themselves to playing the game, who find a purpose within its movements. People who are otherwise unconnected to baseball can so often recognize something essential there, in the actions, the stories, the science — and, more than anything else, in the humanity. People can find something profound to cling to. Sports are a reminder you are not alone: there are others who struggle, because you see them there on the field every day, struggling. There are others who love things just as you do, who share the passions and interests you do, because you see them around you in the stands, you talk to them online, you read their articles and you argue with their takes. You are not alone, you are reassured; you are alive. So you join in, in whatever way you do, big or small, loud or silent. And your presence, whether you know it or not, will reassure someone else of the very same things. You are not alone; you are alive. 

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

People are afraid of this pandemic. People are right to be afraid. We face not only mass crisis, but the prospect of having to face it isolated, splintered off out of necessity from the connections that make our lives livable. It makes sense to mourn baseball’s absence. But baseball’s absence, however long it ends up lasting, doesn’t have to mean the humanity it allows so many people to share with each other has to be subsumed into that mourning. There are people who need help, and there is work to be done, and there will only be more of those in the coming weeks. In whatever respect we can, no matter what resources we have, we can help people. Even in isolation, even without large public gatherings and under self-quarantine. That’s what I’ve learned from all of this, from being connected to this game: The community will always be here. The community is what matters.

“What are we going to do without baseball?” The same things we do when baseball is here; the same things we celebrate on Opening Day. Connecting with each other, coming together. Do what we can with what we have. We are not alone; we are alive. That, even without baseball, is still true.


Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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CL1NT
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CL1NT

Awesome!

Rob
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Member
Rob

As long as I get my regular fix of Rachael’s work, I’ll make it through.

Wakelessgrub
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Wakelessgrub

If I ever manage to produce something that is even 0.1% as good as this piece of writing it will be a life well lived.

Spa City
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Spa City

Wuhan Virus will cost us not only baseball, but all levels of sports. Kids will remember this for decades.

But you are right. Families will stick together and come through stronger when this is done. It will take more than the Wuhan Virus to tear strong families apart.

Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

We have to get over amusing ourselves to death (title of book by Neil Postman) and grow up. Baseball is great but has to be put in perspective.