The seduction has been easy, for those who’ve invited it in. There were some sports fans who’ve done what some of the athletes have done — they’ve opted out, either for now, or for the duration, or for good.
They’ve done this for a variety of reasons: simmering resentment over baseball allowing its labor issues to invade the pandemic; an inability to embrace the odd bells and whistles that have accompanied the various restarts — cardboard cutouts in baseball, virtual fans in hoops, fake crowd noise everywhere you turn — and the temporary (until they’re permanent) changes to baseball’s rules. The prevalence of politics has turned some off. These folks swore to find other things to do, and have, so they have been immune to the lure.
But there are still a lot of baseball fans who embraced this 60-game dash through summer. And that means they have attached themselves to this season as they would any other. There are still more than enough talk-show callers, and columnist emailers, who can’t wait to destroy Aaron Boone’s managing, or Wilson Ramos’ hitting, or the Yankees’ training staff that lately resembles the triage unit from “M*A*S*H” to the Mets’ stubborn refusal to hit with runners in scoring position.
It has made it easy to feel like this is a baseball season just like any other baseball season, collective moods that rise and fall depending on last night’s result. Baseball is like that, always has been, the dailyness of the games approximating a necessary regular fix in the veins of its most ardent fans. And in New York, that daily rush can be intoxicating no matter which side of the great divide you reside.
Except there will be no games this weekend. The first half of the Subway Series, which was supposed to roll out at Citi Field this weekend, will instead likely take over next weekend in a surge of doubleheaders in The Bronx. The Mets were afflicted by COVID-19 during their stay in Miami, one player and one coach for now, pending a slew of test results to come. Some of the team flew home. Some of them stayed behind. Such is baseball life in 2020.
And even now, the first questions from fans tend to be the same: does this help the Yankees (who could surely use a break from the daily trips to the MRI tube they’ve been making)? Does this hurt the Mets (who were fixing to catch the Yankees, perhaps, at their most vulnerable)? Does it hurt the Yankees to keep the memory of the Tampa sweep alive a few more days without having more games to provide amnesia? Does it help the Mets to keep a positive outlook framed by three wins in Miami?
Of course that’s what people want to talk about. That’s baseball. And if you’re all-in in a baseball season, there’s no “off” switch.
It’s just a little different this time.
This time there are athletes involved who, since the start, have put their health at risk every day trying to put together a season. The Yankees felt the sting early, losing DJ LeMahieu and Aroldis Chapman; the Mets had their own summer-camp casualties, and then a couple of opt-outs, and now an infiltration of the virus. The hope is it has been contained. The belief is the virus arrived without anyone breaking protocol.
And that is what makes it especially concerning, a reminder that, even if there is caution, even if there is strict adherence to the rules, the virus doesn’t play by those rules. It will still do as it pleases. And yes: You can cite as often as you want the likelihood that young, strong athletes will almost certainly recover, and the preponderance of cases that are asymptomatic. A simple truth remains this:
If the choice is getting the virus, or not getting the virus, you don’t want the virus.
We can agree about that, right?
Nineteen years ago, sports took a 10-day pause in the wake of 9/11, and it seemed impossible we would ever again fret about the outcomes of ballgames. And yet plenty of Yankees fans suffered through Game 7 of the World Series, even if they didn’t want to. When you care, you care. There are still a lot of them who can’t watch Luis Gonzalez’s at-bat, and one of the things to remember is: it’s OK to feel that way. In fact, in 2001, it was the strongest sign yet that normalcy was possible.
In 2020, the same thing applies. Of course it is OK to miss the games when they’re postponed. Of course it’s OK to think about what happens the rest of the season, even if it’s a truncated season, even if there are seven-inning doubleheaders and a universal DH and the new extra-inning rule.
But it is also OK to remember: When the players play, and when they go on the road, and when they do their best to play out this season, they do it knowing the virus is Out There, that it is lurking, that it can still visit them, still infect them, still bring them all the short- and long-term worries and heart and lung and other issues about which we are all still discovering. We learned 19 years ago that you can be a devout sports fan and show concern for the greater world at large. It wasn’t mutually exclusive. It still isn’t.