by Jared Greenspan
There’s nothing quite like Opening Day.
As soon as the season ends, the countdown to the next begins. Those five months without baseball -- those long, arduous winter months -- often seem endless. That date you have circled on your calendar creeps and crawls closer, ever so slowly.
On the morning it arrives, hope springs eternal. A routine Thursday morning is met with pep and vim, rather than usual dread. The air is crisp, abound with good cheer and unbridled optimism.
For one day, you take everything -- the expectations, the past results, the negativity, the reality -- and throw it out the window. None of that will be needed on this day.
Your team, the one you love with a passion and, simultaneously, hate with fury, has a clean slate. No stains. No blemishes. For one day, your team is in first place.
162 games, spread out over six months, lie ahead. If you squint just hard enough, you can make out that ever-winding narrow path to glory. Well, if this happens and this happens and then this happens, then…
You convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible. This is your team’s year.
Opening Day marks a cause for celebration. Friends and families cluster around televisions; kids play hooky from school; adults call in sick from work. The luckiest ones journey to the ballpark to root alongside 40,000 strangers who, for the day, become their closest friends.
There’s no better feeling.
Thursday evening, Washington’s Max Scherzer will take the mound at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and hurl the first pitch of the 2020 MLB season to Aaron Hicks of the Yankees. Baseball, on the heels of an atypically long nine-month hiatus, will finally be back.
Opening Day, though, won’t be the same. The optimism that accompanies the occasion will be dampened and earmarked by the peculiar.
In 2020, baseball will play amidst a disconcerting backdrop -- a country marred in a devastating pandemic, the coronavirus running wild and showing no signs of letting up.
And so on this Opening Day, there will be no pilgrimages to the ballpark made by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and lifelong friends. There will be no festivities or player introductions. There will be no roaring from the crowd. There will be no ring ceremony for the Nationals, the reigning World Series champions.
Memories will be put on hold.
Instead, as baseball begins its treacherous task of navigating the merciless ways of the pandemic, there will be masks, social distancing and COVID tests -- all newfound staples of a post-coronavirus society. Artificial crowd noise, auto-generated via Playstation’s MLB The Show video game, will ring hollow in cavernous ballparks. Mute cardboard cutouts will occupy the seats meant for raucous fanatics.
By now, the 2020 MLB season should be 90 games deep. The contenders would have separated themselves from the pretenders. The All-Star game and Home Run Derby would have been firmly in the rearview mirror. Rumors would be swirling, with the trade deadline looming around the corner.
Now, even with Opening Day on the doorstep, the very prospect of a 2020 season is fragile. One misstep in following protocol by one player could make everything come tumbling down in September, or October, or next week.
It might not even take a misstep to bring everything crashing to the ground. Thursday, a mere five hours before the opener, Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive for coronavirus. Soto, while asymptomatic, will have to register two clean COVID tests before being cleared to return. In other words, his absence is sure to be a matter of weeks, not days.
Soto has been a full participant in Washington’s summer camp up to this point, meaning that he’s interacted with players, coaches and trainers. It’s certainly possible — if not likely — that he infected a teammate. And yet Washington, minus Soto, is full steam ahead for their game tonight against the Yankees. They scrimmaged Baltimore two days ago. It’s easy to see, now, just how quickly this can spread.
In a situation as unprecedented, the unpredictable is omnipresent. Unknowns are multiplying. Health risks are staggering and worrisome.
There’s a common belief, however naive and short-sighted it may be, that baseball possesses an ability to heal, on both an individual level and a national one. As America’s pastime, baseball has been a recreational diversion to an ailing country countless times before -- during World War I and World War II, in the aftermath of 9-11, following the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Baseball, through both thick and thin, has been there for us.
This go around, something feels different. Baseball is back, and while it may be able to divert, it surely can’t rescue. It’s reasonable to wonder whether, on an ethics standpoint, if it’s right to exhibit fanfare and optimism over a baseball season while 145,000 (and counting) Americans won’t be alive to witness it.
What’s become clear from the coronavirus is that sports are a luxury, perhaps a reward, for a functioning society. New Zealand, a country that has effectively squashed the coronavirus, is reaping the benefits of such, having hosted live sporting events with full capacity stadiums as early as last month. The United States is eons away from matching New Zealand’s success in combatting the pandemic. And thus, the morality of resuming sports while a crippling virus rages on, largely unrestrained, remains in question.
And yet you find yourself anxiously counting down the hours to first pitch, much like any other year. That’s okay. When the games start, you’ll feel the emotions. You’ll cheer. You’ll scream. You’ll feel joy. You’ll feel heartbreak. You’ll be lost in the game of baseball. It’s all inevitable.
We need baseball back. Yet we also need to keep perspective. For one season, at least, the reality that exists outside the baseball diamond should stick with us as we get swept up in the 60-game sprint.
Baseball can distract. But it shouldn’t be a reason to forget.