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This Beautiful Game in These Challenging Times

I came across a quote recently: “If you don’t think baseball is a big deal, don’t play it. But if you do, play it right.” The source is Tom Seaver [1], as told to Pat Jordan [2] in Sports Illustrated in 1972. Tom, as ever, played it right and said it right. Yet even Tom at his most Terrific wouldn’t be able to make baseball quite right in 2020.

We’re deep into May and nobody in these parts has played a lick of baseball. We’re told that come July we may be witness to some semblance of what we’ve been lacking. We’ll see if we see. We’ll see how badly we want to see. We should have no bigger problem six weeks from now than deciding if the baseball we’re suddenly watching measures up to hastily recalibrated par.

The phantom season to date has experientially turned us all into Expos diehards. Expos fans haven’t seen a new Expos game in sixteen years, yet you still come across the tri-colored torch lighting certain corners of social media, held steadily and proudly aloft until the day baseball comes back to Montreal. No game today, eh, but these pictures of Andre Dawson in his prime (before he undertook his current occupation [3]) are really something.

The Mets are currently tied with the Expos; all transferred franchises; all defunct operations; and all otherwise dormant ballclubs in the 2020 standings, but we do have a past to frolic within. I have to admit I’ve been fairly OK tiptoeing through those tulips, whether in our twice-weekly series A Met for All Seasons [4] or watching the Mets of yore conquer roving bands of Orioles, Astros and Red Sox in a warmly received SNY loop. The Mets have fifty-eight years of baseball behind them. That’s quite a stockpile to occupy my mind on any cold spring night.

But if being the Expos was so great, we’d have all moved to Washington in 2005. One can understand why, despite circumstances that have forced us to veer outside the baseline of normal behavior, we wouldn’t mind a little new baseball from our ostensibly still-in-business baseball teams. I hear politicians — the ones I can stand as well as the other kind — talk about how nice it will be to have sports come back in some televised form as soon as it is conceivably safe to let some games begin. “Yeah, I guess,” I nod in my mind despite my status as a lifetime sports fan of the fairly typical which is to say obsessed variety. My hesitation stems from the notion that we should be relishing watching baseball as a live TV show while people in peril (understanding that people are always in peril, but this is a lot of people and a lot of peril). Switchin’ to the new ol’ ballgame just doesn’t register as an appropriate action to take, no matter how passive an activity tuning into SNY is.

The key word in kickstarting Major League Baseball is safe, which, in a baseball context, is usually something we shout when a Met reaches a base. “Stay safe,” we tell one another nowadays in every context. “Stay safe” sounds like something you’re urged to do when the choice is running through a traffic-laden thoroughfare or crossing at the green, not in between. Don’t stand so close to anybody, it means. Or if you must, wear a mask. And for god’s sake, no handshakes, hugs or high-fives.

Last time we saw the Mets for real, in 2019, they were one big hug [5]. Dom Smith had homered in the eleventh inning, the Mets had beaten the Braves, ebullience was in order. Whether you were at Citi Field or watching in isolation, you couldn’t help but want to storm onto a busy street in search of nothing less than a high-five. You’d accept a handshake. You’d more likely hug a passing stranger without a pause to consider consequences. It was September of last year. Baseball still made you want to do that.

Baseball still makes me want to do that. I react giddily to rebroadcasts of games from last September, or the last time the Mets won the World Series, or the first time the Mets won the World Series, or that time Noah Syndergaard homered against the Phillies, which SNY shows the minute they run out of infomercials. I’d want to do that when the Mets win anything. It would be bizarre to not want to.

But it strikes me as just as bizarre to start getting overly excited about the Mets or any baseball team taking part in the version of the season that MLB and the MLBPA are dickering over [6]. That’s the one with games only against your division rivals and your division counterparts from the other league; the rule about players designated to hit for pitchers, inflicted from that other league; the one with nobody in the stands; the one with no hugging, high-fiving or handshaking among players; and the one with all kinds of precautions that make sense in every world except the pre-pandemic baseball universe where spitting is not only accepted as something other than disgusting but venerated as roguishly charming.

Better than nothing, is the prevailing sentiment. Yeah, I guess. I guess I guess. When I was in college, in a land where all-night fast-food joints far outnumbered synagogues, I had a theological discussion with a friend about the difference between practicing Judaism as a religion versus identifying with Judaism culturally. My friend was baffled. “I couldn’t call myself a Christian if I wasn’t being a Christian,” he said. In that regard, I suppose, baseball players aren’t baseball players unless they’re playing baseball. Baseball teams are just repositories for lingering brand equity if they’re not adding to their numbers (not just the financial kind). Pete Alonso hasn’t added to his career home run total in eight months. Dom Smith’s dramatic streak is stuck on one at-bat. Jacob deGrom has probably struck out 300 batters in his backyard but none that Baseball-Reference has been able to record. And money isn’t being made by anybody in the industry.

Baseball isn’t being baseball without baseball. Of course they want to play ball if they can play ball, if they can do it without proverbially chasing the ball onto Roosevelt Avenue with an unmasked city bus full of germs barreling straight toward them. Of course they want to be seen doing it on TV if no closer than on TV. Of course it’s not officially summer without a first pitch at 7:10. It hasn’t really been spring without that necessary nightly tick of our ballological clock, if in fact it is spring (one tends to lose track easily these days).

Yet, barring the flattest of curves and the most medical of miracles, I’m not particularly enthused. If we get baseball, it won’t be baseball like it oughta be, and I don’t mean 108 wins, four bench-clearing brawls and a parade up Broadway. Baseball like it oughta be is simply baseball in a ballpark with people; with sunflower seeds soaring majestically if repulsively if you think about it too long; with singalongs where traditional [7]; with hands touching hands, reaching out, begging for a baseball to be tossed over here, over here! All that stuff. Even on TV that’s baseball like it oughta be.

Without it, it’s an open-air studio. It’s the KBO at dawn, which I’ve taken in a couple of times on ESPN. It’s better than nothing, which I’m not opposed to from half-a-world away. I’ve found myself into it slightly, albeit without a rooting interest (I discovered myself applauding nice plays by the offense and defense in the same half-inning; apparently my favorite KBO team is “good game, good game”). Accept substitutes for the real MLB thing? Listen, better-than-nothingness has its merits.

But the emptiness of the ballparks, no matter how they attempted to cover it up with recorded lifelike murmuring — and despite the plucky presence of the cheerleaders who had no one to lead in cheers — quashed the vibe. It was the first inning of the first game of a midweek midafternoon makeup doubleheader against the Marlins over and over and over.

And we make up rainouts against the Marlins enough as it is, y’know? I get the feeling that every game in the schedule-truncated, attendance-restricted 2020 season under current consideration will be 4:10 PM on a Monday at Citi Field. Or 5:30 in the morning from Korea, albeit with a rooting interest.

Beyond wishing for baseball to be as perfect as it can be if it can’t be all that it oughta be (which it plainly and obviously can’t be), it also occurs to me the ghost ballpark won’t allow for the facility to serve one of its implied if understated functions during a baseball season. Citi Field is our town square in an age where we aren’t prone to gathering in one. A lot of that is the neighborhood feeling a ballpark can fill you with on a good night [8], but it’s also where we’ve instinctively come to conduct many of our community rituals. Good times, bad times, many are the times that don’t feel properly acknowledged until there’s a pregame moment of silence or a roar of honored-guest approval. It can be for those who’ve survived or those who’ve achieved. We who don’t ordinarily stand on ceremony stand ritually, perhaps proudly for the anthem. We notice the flag pole, take note when it’s at half-staff and become cognizant of why and for whom its rise stopped where it did.

At the risk of being a little morbid, how does a ballpark raise its flag to its highest point in 2020 knowing how many of our fellow citizens (locally, nationally, globally) we’ve lost and that there will very likely be a TBD element to this specific count? How do we forget why the flag shouldn’t rise to full-mast? The moments of silence that allow us a touch of shared mourning inevitably give way to a crowd that wishes to get vocal, get loud and hopefully get happy from baseball. Something besides the projected paid attendance of zero doesn’t add up to “play ball!” with so many gone present as a constant backdrop.

Also, if you don’t mind my swerving into a probably inappropriate metaphor coming off the previous paragraph, will NL teams wear a memorial patch to commemorate the end of baseball as we know it? “Universal DH” is being slipped into the pending plan along with our nomenclature as if the shift is no big deal. The allegedly temporary rule adjustment is being made presumably so as not to inconvenience the delicate sensibilities of the American League, where they inherently don’t understand baseball like it oughta be. Will I idealistically look away from my television when the offending one-ninth of a batting order comes up at Citi Field, Nationals Park or any venue where the designated hitter has been officially unwelcome? I’d like to think I could keep up that level of protest, for the day I say, “if the Mets get this guy, he could DH for us,” is the day I will have lost my baseball soul.

Souls, alas, like baseball franchises, aren’t permanently unmovable. Still, I’d prefer to think I’d respond to being told the Mets will benefit from the “universal DH” the way Bob Newhart responded to The Bob Newhart Show writers when they told him they had prepared a script in which he, Dr. Bob Hartley, and his wife, played by Suzanne Pleshette, learn they’re going to have a kid on a program that had purposely avoided being standard sitcom family fare:

Suzanne and I love the script, but who are you going to get to play Bob?

My threat to boycott Citi Field this year if a DH steps to the plate there rings rather hollow within the specter of an empty ballpark. And unlike the relationship between The Bob Newhart Show and its star, the New York Mets and the remnants of National League baseball would get along just fine without me. I can’t say the same for vice-versa.

Maybe baseball, without genuine baseball rules or genuine baseball alignment or genuine baseball fans on hand, approaches unresistant to hesitation as long as enough powers that be are willing to call it “safe”. Maybe that’s a good enough thing in what commercials keep informing us are these challenging times. Nevertheless, much like Tom Seaver in 1972, the S.O.S. Band made an excellent point [9] in 1980 that may be worth listening to with fresh ears in 2020: Take your time. Do it right.

There’s that word again — right. As if these challenging times have a lot of that packed into them.