Over the past 150 years, Major League Baseball has reflected America.
From the color barrier that echoed Jim Crow laws beginning in the late 1800s, to the giddy flamboyance of the 1920s, to racial integration of the 1940s, to the steroids-fueled excess of the better-living-through-chemistry 1990s, baseball has both followed and led American society. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, baseball is returning for an unprecedented season.
Today is opening day, an occurrence that typically arrives at the end of March or the beginning of April but which has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Two games are scheduled for the beginning of a season in which each team is expected to play 60 regular season games; the Seattle Mariners open the truncated season Friday at Houston.
The games will be there, but the fans will not; Major League Baseball begins the season some 16 weeks late in empty ballparks. Nobody will be singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the foreseeable future.
For a sports-obsessed country, it is a bittersweet moment. The return of the national pastime delivers some sense of normalcy while carrying obsessive reminders that nothing is normal these days. Sports have largely been shut down since COVID-19 seized the nation’s attention in mid-March, with their absence adding to the discomfort of stay-at-home orders and daily updates to the death toll. At a time when we have needed the distraction of sports more than ever, those sports have abandoned us out of caution.
So, we welcome the return of baseball, even as we reflect upon the future of the games that serve as America’s toy store. The prospect of college and professional football in the fall is suspect at best; major conferences such as the Pac-12 already have reduced schedules for this season — likely a fit of wishful best-case-scenario thinking. And Washington’s governing body for high school sports announced Tuesday that football, volleyball and girls soccer — typically played in the fall — have been moved to the spring of 2021.
Despite the best-laid plans, there is no telling whether reality will cooperate, with concern about the health of athletes and coaches creating havoc with schedules. As Mick Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, said in announcing the latest scenario: “Please understand that it’s an incredibly fluid situation. It could change tomorrow. When you look at dates, those are definitely written in pencil.”
All of which makes the return of baseball a cause for cautious celebration. All of which means the hope that typically bubbles in the spring has merely been delayed a couple months. The Mariners, after all, are still undefeated as they seek the first World Series trip in their 44-year history.
Even amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, baseball holds a unique place in the American psyche. Perhaps even more so because of the pandemic. As historian Jacques Barzun wrote in 1954, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
That rings true as we seek some reminder of how the nation appeared before the coronavirus and as we retain some hope that it someday will return to form. Sports are not so much a defining character of America rather than a reflection of it, and the lack of playtime has reflected our turmoil and our longing for life to be ordinary.
Today is a reminder of what is ordinary. Even if it is different from before.