A Year Without Baseball

By Courtney Preiss
Illustration by Kabriah Asha

Baseball saves lives. Ask the San Franciscans if it’s not true. I think often of the 1989 World Series. Both competing teams—the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s—just so happened to be from the Bay Area, garnering the rapt attention and engagement of an entire region. Just as game three was about to start, the 7.2 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake rolle through Northern California, taking with it buildings, public structures, and human lives.

The 19th Century buildings lining the streets of downtown Santa Cruz were destroyed in a instant. A 50-foot segment of the Bay Bridge’s upper level roadway collapsed onto the lower level. The two deck, four lane Cypress Street Viaduct section of the I-880 crumbled—again, the upper deck dropping to meet the lower deck. That specific side effect of the earthquake was responsible for the deaths of 42 people. My mother cited the incident often in my youth: every time we drove over the Verrazano Bridge, always on the top level.

The earthquake and its death toll was a tragedy, in no uncertain terms. But the hidden miracle was the greater loss of life that was avoided simply by chance: the World Series had disrupted regular routine to such a degree that the death toll was initially estimated to be much higher. A typical commuter volume on an idle Tuesday at 5:04 pm PST would have yielded hundreds, possibly thousands, more Bay Area residents trapped or crushed in their vehicles. But they weren’t on the road. They were at crowded bars and watch parties, knit close around the glow of the ABC Sports broadcast. They left work early to get home and watch the ballgame with their families. They were at Candlestick Park—which had fortuitously been recently reinforced for seismic strengthening—watching the game, taking in the sounds of the stadium, the smells of the freshly cut grass, and sweet concessions.

They were at Candlestick Park, watching the game, taking in the sounds of the stadium, the smells of the freshly cut grass, and sweet concessions.

Baseball saves lives, my father reminds me with great frequency throughout my life, though perhaps never again so literally as it did that day. But it saves us year after year in smaller, more subtle ways: perennially instilling the hope and anticipation that will carry us through long, dormant winters. The promise of spring, a reward for our carefully trained patience. The warmth of community and camaraderie it offers. The familial bond it forges, tossed from one generation to the next. Throughout the course of our lives, it has ferried us from one side of assorted emotional maladies to the other: deaths and breakups and other axis-shifting moments of transition. Which is why it feels particularly cruel that in Spring of 2020, in a climate where we are so desperately in need of healing and respite, that baseball did not return and apply its annual balm to our collective soul.

To be sure, the upended return of Major League Baseball is small beans compared to the larger and most devastating effects of the novel coronavirus have been across the country (an out of control spiral exacerbated by our lunatic-helmed federal government who have pitted public health against the economy) and the world (over half a million global deaths, as of this writing). Historically, however, baseball has rolled on through the significant, generational, and unprecedented challenges that have intersected the game’s existence.

Its absence during a spell of enormous strife feels more sinister when you consider the MLB carried on during World War II with President Roosevelt’s hearty endorsement. Ten days after 9/11, baseball resumed in New York (I hear a mustachioed catcher of the Metropolitans did something awe-inspiring that night) and served as a much needed catharsis to both the city and the nation. Ten days after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the A’s returned to sweep their cross-Bay rivals in four games. The 1918 World Series was postponed—not due to Spanish Flu, but in deference to The Great War. The delayed Series was still held over a long stretch of two weeks, ending in a Red Sox victory—their last title for what would become an 86 year drought.

I have two potent memories of disruptions to the MLB. The more recent one was amidst the protests in Baltimore following the murder of Freddie Gray. Ten days and two game cancellations later, the Baltimore Orioles couldn’t provide sufficient security at Camden Yards and claimed they could not move nor make up a final game against the Chicago White Sox. In a controversial decision, they played to a crowdless stadium on an afternoon in April. I kept a live feed of the game open on a tab on my work computer, haunted by the sight of the empty stands.

The other was in Fall of 1994. I was five years old and although my entire existence had been furnished by the sounds of the game surrounding me, I’d only taken a sincere personal interest in Yankee baseball about a year prior after watching Jim Abbott, who had been born without a right hand, pitch a no hitter. But just as soon as the flames had been fanned in me did the MLB go dark. A strike bifurcated the following season and we suffered a thwarted storyline of glory as the Yankees had the best record in the American League and the second best record in all of baseball. More devastating—to my father and to legions of other fanatics—was the Don Mattingly factor. Our captain was finally poised for a postseason debut after 13 long pennant-less years in the Bronx. Many saw 1994 as his last chance. I remember the atmosphere in my house, oscillating between frustrated anger and somber acceptance, when my father called me out to the driveway and pointed to a plastic tee and wiffleball set. In lieu of the Major League games, we were going to have our own. There would be no ring for Mattingly, but someone in this house was going to learn how to swing a bat.

Image Courtesy of the Author

I can’t just throw on a glove and run out to the field with my family now. I am unable to do what we once did to assuage the sadness of missing the game. The very nature of what keeps baseball from us is the same thing that keeps us apart from one another: Our desire to protect one another, to not be willing to risk getting each other sick. Like other fans, we’ve been revisiting our memories of photographs of bygone seasons in the sun, broadcasts of classic games on the YES Network, picking up an old baseball-centric novel or a movie that electrified us the first time around. More than ever, American fans have turned to overseas leagues to get their fill. Japan’s NPB league resumed operations after a delay. Clips from South Korea’s KBO games have gone viral as the masses are amused by the league’s unique solve to the empty stands: filling the seats with stuffed animals.

But here at home, we are both deep into the summer and far from baseball normalcy. On a smaller scale, the suburban New Jersey adult mens’ softball league my father has played in for nearly three decades had been at odds over how to proceed before pulling the trigger on a mid-July start date and some promises to add distancing protocols that have fallen by the wayside. (Troublesome, considering how a notable percentage of the league’s players are considered among the most vulnerable to the virus.) Independent leagues across the country—like the Frontier League—have suspended operations, unable to ensure safe travel for players and fans alike. Minor League Baseball was cancelled for the first time since it was founded in 1901. The 160 teams and tens of thousands of people the MiLB employs will go without a season.

At the time of writing this, after an initial indefinite postponement, the MLB has decided to hold “Opening Day” on July 23rd to attempt a 60 game regular season schedule with empty stands. But as more dysfunction rises to the surface with each passing day, the prospect of my Yankees and any of their adversaries returning to the diamond this calendar year with any sustained consistency remains murky. The MLB’s July—“Summer Camp”—workouts, meant to perhaps yield hope and offer a small token of normalcy and stability, have instead yielded frustration (daily requisite virus test results not delivered in a timely fashion, forcing cancellations), finger pointing (with many clubs citing the MLB’s mismanagement of the process), and transmission (an outbreak occurred at Phillies camp and several other Major League players on various teams have tested positive as well).

I have to imagine that as the MLB returns, my pining notwithstanding, it won’t be a grand return to the feel of summers of my youth that I crave: one night of a homestand bleeding into the next, chasing fireflies in the backyard while the glow of the game beams from the old television set my father dragged out onto the deck out back. I already know I won't feel a true sense of satisfaction watching our men play to empty stadiums while infection rates and death tolls surge in the cities that surround them. I imagine it might feel somewhat akin to how I feel about the block party scale of diners occupying the new al fresco setups at the restaurants on my street. Sure, they figured out a way to offer brunch in 2020, but doesn’t the space-suited serving staff and the high risk of infection make you think twice about plunking yourself down, ripping off your mask, and ordering a spritz?

A handful of MLB players have already opted out of the season—unwilling to carry on with the risk, and citing everything from physical safety, to the wellbeing of their families, to the claim that having fans removed from the equation too greatly compromises to the experience of playing. “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle noted in a candid Zoom interview with a reporter from The New York Times. “And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve.” Of the 250 men in the adult softball league in my hometown, only 7 opted out, my father and brother included in that smaller number.

For us—a family who starts counting the days until pitchers and catchers report from the moment the last out is made at the World Series—the extended off-season is devastating. I can’t be sure what the motivation behind the other defectors’ decisions were, but I know for us what’s always been true remains true: baseball saves lives. It’s our household ethos and the fact that carries us through long spells of harsh conditions. It means we cannot in good conscience participate when a game is antithetical to literal lifesaving measures, no matter how our longing.

Baseball in 2020 is characterized by 2020. Here’s what I’m consuming to save my own life in the meantime:

Wait ’Til Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The baseball memoir of my youth. The famed historian takes a crack at writing about her own experience as a scrappy Brooklyn Dodgers fan growing up in Rockville Center. My father read it aloud to me during the summer of the race to beat Roger Maris’ home run record. Every subsequent reread evokes a spark of that season.

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. The entire series is more than worthwhile (my beloved Doris Kearns Goodwin features prominently as one of the only female interview subjects), but my favorite is Part 7, “The Capital of Baseball”—all about the heyday of New York City’s greates teams and the heartbreak of losing two of them to the West coast. My family loves this installment so intensely we had to procure multiple replacement episode discs from eBay growing up because that particular disc frequently went missing from our DVD box set or else played until it was too worn.

The Cactus League, by Emily Nemens. A debut novel centered around spring training from the editor of The Paris Review. This book has been on deck in my overwhelming bedside queue since pre-quarantine and I can’t wait to finally read it. I half expect the pages to smell like freshly cut grass when I finally crack the spine.

Field of Dreams & Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella. Watch the movie and read the novel it was adapted from. I consider this one of the most masterful novel-to-film adaptations ever executed—each entity holding its own merit and offering its own unique beauty to the genres they inhabit. I think the film is better known than the novel at this point, but Kinsella’s sparklin prose is not to be missed. No other writer captures the glittering magic of baseball at its best quite like he did.

*Under no circumstances are you to revisit The Sandlot. What a toxic, mediocre little movie. Watch A League of Their Own for the 73rd time instead. Read Penny Marshall’s memoir. Google Jackie Mitchell. Build a shrine to Effa Manley. Pay no attention to those boys playing in that dirt. ︎