Alan Zendell, July 23, 2020
In today’s Washington Post, sports columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, “If MLB stays virus-lucky, the World Series may end a week before the election — and my head may not explode listening to two parties fight for months over the seven U.S. voters who are still undecided.” I couldn’t agree more. It wouldn’t be the first time the mindless distraction of baseball saved my sanity.
Americans are so desperate for a diversion, even football fans are eager to watch baseball. People who have always claimed to hate baseball can’t wait for it to start, tonight. Partly, it’s a reaction to the coronavirus, a small sign that American life might return to normal one day. But as Boswell indicated, this year’s presidential campaign is going to be brutal. We may all need someplace to escape for a few hours.
We’ve never had a president with a lust for power like Donald Trump or one who was as completely lacking in empathy. We’ve already had a taste of the kind of campaign ads he will run – dystopian views of a failed America based on blatant lies and debunked conspiracy theories, not to mention charges of a rigged election and threats to ignore the outcome if he loses. We’re going to have to endure outrageous, violent spectacles this year provoked by a president who has frequently demonstrated that no tactic is beneath him. We’re all going to need an occasional time out.
This season will be difficult for baseball, too, as it attempts to set a workable standard for professional sports in the time of the pandemic. With Americans mourning the loss of so many loved ones and so many jobs to the virus, baseball can provide a psychological lift that eases their passage. Millions of people will tune in just to see if it works, but there’s a hidden danger there. If baseball gets better television ratings than the president, he might write an executive order trying to shut it down.
On the other hand, Trump might take a hint from baseball. He might decide that computer-generated crowd noise (which was less awful than I expected) could compensate for low decibel levels at his poorly attended rallies. Likewise, the cardboard cutouts of fans at Dodger Stadium (which are completely ridiculous) might spare him future embarrassments like the of two out of three empty seats in Tulsa. The idea of fake crowds fits in perfectly with his agenda.
In addition to having empty stadia, baseball has modified itself considerably to adapt to the virus. The season will be only sixty games instead of 162. The rules of the game have changed – pitchers won’t bat and if games are tied after nine innings, each new half-inning will begin with a free runner at second base to avoid having players on the field longer than necessary. Rules of behavior have changed too – no high fives, no spitting, no hugging after big hits, tossing balls touched by multiple players out of the game, and no nose-to-nose jawboning with umpires.
To me, the most impressive change was permitting players to choose not to play out of concern for the coronavirus without loss of pay. It’s a business model that should be applied to other people our society depends on. With the president insisting that all schools open on time and many school systems planning normal classroom instruction, wouldn’t it be nice if we found a way to do that for teachers and other school staff? We need sports to preserve our emotional well-being in a time of great stress. We need teachers to assure the survival of the next generation – keeping them alive and healthy has to be at least as important as keeping athletes healthy.
Along those lines, we Nationals fans will miss long time star and general class act, Ryan Zimmerman, who has opted to sit out the season. And when they open the season against the Yankees, tonight, they will be without their young superstar Juan Soto, who won the hearts of every mother in America (along with everyone else who watched him) last year. Soto tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss at least two weeks, perhaps the entire season.
That’s what Boswell meant by “virus-lucky.” If baseball loses too many Sotos, it may turn out to be just a painful reminder of everything else we’ll be dealing with this year. On the other hand, there may be a way to turn this to our advantage. Let’s start a campaign to convince the president that if big-egoed athletes can sit out the virus, it would be best for the country if he did too. I’d even be willing to double his salary.