“It’s good to have baseball back.”
Such were the words of Nate Eovaldi Thursday afternoon, a simple thought that resonates so strongly in this time of pandemic, one that channels the basic gratitude we feel for the one sport that has always made summer feel like summer.
It is good to have baseball back.
But it isn’t easy.
There is no ignoring the reality that Eovaldi’s most simple sentiment is dropped into a most complicated point in history, a small sentence that opens so many bigger questions. Truth is, it’s difficult to ignore the internal conflict that demands we acknowledge the role of sports as a happy distraction from the daily grind but also asks about its relative importance vis-a-vis a nation still caught in the grip of COVID-19.
It’s great to see that baseball can be played, but so too is it fair to ask whether it should be played.
In a Zoom call in advance of the Red Sox season opener Friday, team president Sam Kennedy agreed that it is a fair question to ask, and acknowledged that there may be mixed feelings about playing now.
“We do feel that way, understanding this is unprecedented, understanding that not everyone may share that opinion,” he said. “Part of our job here, in addition to winning championships, is that a lot of people are employed here on a part-time or full-time basis, and like a lot of people in Massachusetts, we are doing everything to keep our people employed as part of the Red Sox organization and we need to get our business back on track at some point. This has been devastating.”
Yet here we are. Baseball has made it this far, working its way past ugly and rancorous labor strife, working its way around a vicious and unrelenting virus, working its way through rescheduled spring training sessions. Here we are, at the starting lane of a 60-game sprint unlike anything the sport has known.
The truncated schedule that keeps teams staying within their regional corridors. Cardboard cutouts and virtual images where fans used to be. A nomadic team of Toronto Blue Jays still looking for a home. Masks covering the faces of the game’s biggest stars, and some not here at all as they opted not to play. All of it painting a picture different from anything we’ve seen before.
Still, through strangeness and weirdness, past the disappointing departure of Mookie Betts and the frustrating injury to Chris Sale, from the end of the Alex Cora era to the start of the Ron Roenicke one, it is good to have baseball back. And when Eovaldi takes the ball into his capable hands and throws the first pitch against the Orioles Friday night, the palpable sense of relief and joy will be shared among the game’s most ardent fans.
This is a welcome break from the 24-hour news cycle, a respite from the TV replays of classic games, a reminder that as frustrating as it was to listen to the petty arguments over the logistics of this return, the return itself is something to celebrate.
And yet I find myself wishing it were that easy to just surrender to the joy, to turn to sports the way I always have, not just as an adult when it became my means of making a living, but to the action, the stories, the drama, and the competition that have fueled me since childhood, the combination of which has always added up to the best reality show of them all.
It’s just so difficult when you hear that Nationals star Juan Soto would miss Thursday’s season-opening game against the Yankees because he learned early in the day that he tested positive for COVID-19; when you realize his sample would have been collected as far back as Tuesday and since then he played in an exhibition game and worked out with his team; when you wonder just how many other players he may have exposed to the virus.
Unlike the relatively small bubbles of insulation instituted by the WNBA, MLS, the NWSL, and the NBA, baseball players will be traveling for games, , no doubt following best practices but in no way capable of knowing how well that will work.
The virus isn’t interested in negotiating terms of agreement, and if it decides to unleash a second wave come the colder months, what happens then?
For now, baseball pushes ahead anyway, like a kid counting down from 10 for a game of hide-and-seek shouting, “Ready or not, here I come!,” its fingers crossed that the game will last until October for a World Series.
Yet there was Roenicke Thursday afternoon, also reminding us how fragile things can be, the manager telling us that pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez would be shut down from baseball activities for what he called “minor” post-COVID complications.
Our collective desire for normalcy is a unifying force, just as a love of sports brings us together too. Baseball has always done its part, helping us come alive in spring, keeping us company through summer, warming us up in the fall, carrying us through World Wars, national tragedies like 9/11, or local horrors like the Marathon bombing.
It is good to have baseball back, but it’s complicated too.