The usual rancorous labor tensions made for a protracted timeline as they fought to agree on the terms of re-engagement, but eventually, it was “play ball.” Unlike the N.B.A. and some other leagues, baseball did not create a “bubble” for its players, given the real estate required and the size of these traveling teams. They were allowed to return home after games, undoubtedly increasing their chances of exposure and the risk for others beyond the clubhouse. Players and staff have taken precautions to protect their families and some players have even opted out of the season entirely. Still, day by day, the league is scrambling to contain the opponent that had put them out of business for so long, and is threatening to do so again.
Most Americans, even those who are not fans, are watching professional sports closely, not only to see our favorite team compete for a championship, but to see these institutions, whose power grew out of our collective imagination, fighting to win a real-time battle over this threat to our current existence. Even when humility tells us that triumph is simply prolonging our ability to safely play another day.
As usual, baseball is never just about baseball. It is called our national pastime for a reason. The virus has dealt a serious blow not just to the league’s operation but, in some sense, to the nation itself: Our confidence has been shaken, our helplessness reinforced, our anxiety and caution ramped up yet again. Baseball was entering the war against the pandemic, and the world was positioned to benefit from the information that would be gathered. The league, armed to the teeth with power and privilege, access to testing, cash flow, precision data collection, and high-powered, lower-risk athletes playing outdoors, was supposed to prevail.
Baseball’s success, then, will be our success; its failure, our failure. We want to know we can win this fight, without being curled up in a ball while waiting for a vaccine, even though we quietly understand that many variables that give these sports advantages in this fight are not fully available to the vast majority of people. Still, we hope that baseball’s eventual victory will wash over us as one.
I remember my time on the Phillies in wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. As both a player and a player representative, I wondered how we would justify coming back to play at all. In the grand scheme of things, we were only playing a game. We were nonessential on paper. But when we did return, we found that some of what we recaptured was essential — to the uplift of our spirit and to the restoration of the society we created with our inspiration and our passion for fair competition and gamesmanship. It had become larger than the scoreboard.