For a nation beleaguered by months on end of sickness, isolation, and violence, the bar is set low for something, anything that can distract our attention, even if for just a couple of hours.
That is why sports fans in general, and baseball enthusiasts in particular, are celebrating the return – finally – of America’s national pastime. And this potentially magic moment provides MLB the opportunity to continue its long tradition of rescuing the nation’s spirit in times of profound crisis.
A quick step back in time – and a bent toward numerology – can tie together the potential impact when bat mercifully meets ball on July 23, if only on TV and not in stadiums, where fans are prohibited. The numbers 19 and 60 tell the story. As baseball prepares to break the iron grip of COVID-19, we think back 19 years to 9/11/01, a day which, like 12/7/41, 60 years previous, will forever live in infamy. Both seminal events were mitigated by the healing waters of baseball.
A nation unsure of when it could smile and enjoy life again following the terror of September 11 sat largely in stunned silence, prayerfully processing the nightmare as life around us came grinding to a halt. Fear and sadness abounded. But then after ten days of national soul-searching, baseball returned to the field on September 21. The nation focused on the belly of the 9/11 beast, shellshocked New York City, where Shea Stadium served as the showpiece for a return to some semblance of normalcy. And in the 8th inning of that first game back, in the heart of a resumed pennant race before a standing-room-only crowd, superstar Mike Piazza launched a towering, game-winning home run deep into the night. The place went crazy. People smiled again. The spell was broken, if only for an unforgettable moment.
One month later, a World Series for the ages seemed to bring the country back from the spiritual cliff. This time it was not the Mets, but their crosstown rivals – the mighty New York Yankees, fresh off four World Series titles in the previous five years – who took up the mantle of lifting their fallen town as they faced heavy underdogs, the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks. The series featured two edge-of-your-seat, impossible late-inning comebacks by the New Yorkers and concluded in a climactic seventh game, when the D’backs rose from the grave and won it all with two runs in the bottom of the 9th off the most dominant relief pitcher in history, Mariano Rivera. America was enraptured.
Taking the calendar back to the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and World War II, Major League Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis twice offered to shut down baseball in deference to the war effort. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused, arguing that the continuation of baseball was vital to the national esprit de corps. So while many baseball players, including legends Ted Williams and Stan Musial, trudged off to war, the remnant played on.
There are many less prominent examples of baseball’s ability to salve the wounds of a troubled nation. In the midst of a presidential impeachment crisis in 1998, the historic duel for the single-season home run record between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, though later discredited due to massive steroid abuse, captured and held the nation’s attention for weeks. So did Roger Maris’ chase of that same home run record in 1961 amidst the frightening succession of events bookended by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came closer than ever to nuclear war. Ted Williams’ (successful) chase of the magical .400 batting average in 1941 provided a thrilling distraction for a nation on the brink of war. And the meteoric rise of the legendary Babe Ruth in 1920 not only saved baseball, damaged badly by the Black Sox scandal the year before, but helped lift the nation out of the physical and emotional wreckage of World War I.
As the dominant sport on the American landscape for decades past, if not today, baseball has always taken upon itself something of a custodial duty to the national spirit. Sadly, that spirit did not appear to reside in either the players or owners over the three months of fruitless negotiations that produced the season set before us. But it remains that sense of making do with the task laid before you, and the inventions mothered by unconventional circumstances that can serve as unexpected gems discovered within a deepening hole in the ground.
The legendary All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was born amidst war and memorialized in the classic film A League of Their Own. Capitalizing on the unique opportunity presented by the depleted wartime major leagues, the woeful St. Louis Browns won the 1944 World Series against their crosstown rival Cardinals, lifting the spirits of underdogs everywhere. The nation clung to baseball when it needed sustenance and hope.
That same sense of hope might now be welling up in the fans of teams who would be written off in the typical marathon of a 162 game schedule but could survive or even thrive in the 60 game sprint now set to kick off in a month. For a sport already suffering from lagging popularity, except on TV, the innovations it has sanctioned for this one truncated season might prove to be attractive to previously disinterested observers desperate for any kind of sports. For example, games tied after nine innings will start every extra inning with the team at bat having a runner on second base, adding instant excitement and promising a speedier conclusion in a sport widely criticized for its lengthiness. Regional rivalries will be expanded by the necessity to avoid excessive travel. The designated hitter, while anathema to baseball purists, will now be employed universally instead of for half the teams, promising more runs. And there is a new prohibition on one of the more unfortunate attributes of the game – spitting.
Some of the unique conditions will not be attractive, of course. First and foremost, with fans prohibited entry, the players will ply their trade in virtual silence, so they – and fans watching at home – will not benefit – or wilt – from the roar of the crowd.
This once-in-a-lifetime season may be something of a thin gruel for traditional baseball fans. But to the rest of a weary and fragile nation, it will do just fine, thank you.
Read more from Tim Donner.
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