Why it’s OK to feel conflicted about MLB’s return in a pandemic

Buck Martinez and Dan Shulman discuss a couple of bright spots from the Blue Jays first series of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays, including Cavan Biggio and Canadian Jordan Romano.

It’s an uneasy feeling being a baseball fan in this moment, and no fanbase has felt that more profoundly than the supporters of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The questions we would like to be pondering after baseball’s opening weekend should be about who will have breakout seasons, and can our team compete for the post-season. Instead, we’re left to ponder how they’ll manage to play a full season away from home. And most importantly, can they stay safe?

By this point in the year 2020, we should know better than to expect anything to feel “normal.” If any fans expected the return of baseball to add some sense of normalcy to their lives, the reality has been that it has actually reinforced just how abnormal these times are and will continue to be.

It was eminently foreseeable that this baseball season would be beyond strange for fans, especially since much of it will carry on without us. The little pleasures that one spends the winter anticipating, like a fresh bucket of popcorn or a hot dog and a cold beer on a hot day at the ballpark will have to wait until some undefined time to come.

Moreover, one starts to recognize just how much we took for granted being in the park with thousands of others who share this passion as part of a community of fans of the game and of the team. People will tell you that sports don’t matter, but there are few opportunities that we have to put all else aside in our lives and lose ourselves emotionally while connecting with others around one goal, which is out of our hands but rests deep in our hearts.

As we’ve isolated for these many days and weeks and months since March, we’ve been reminded of those moments of pure elation by watching the replays of the World Series teams or Bat Flip era Blue Jays. Or even catching some sights from last year’s championship celebrations for the Toronto Raptors.

At a time when many of us ache to hug a loved one, what we wouldn’t give to hug a stranger at a historic sports moment.

It’s unquestionably true that the lack of ease at the launch of the new season is borne of the fact that even the most enthusiastic of us are left wondering whether if this is the right time or the right plan to proceed. Baseball’s ownership groups and the player’s union took the lockdown as an opportunity to hash out the issues at the foundation of the next collective bargaining agreement. As they did so, the owners concocted and imposed a return to work plan that might have seemed vaguely reasonable around late May, but seems more out of step with the reality of an out-of-control pandemic with each passing day.

Baseball is known as America’s game, and while its history is shared with Canada and the world, the problems with Major League Baseball are inextricably tied at this moment with the historic global public health crisis, especially as it spins out of control in the United States. Which is to say nothing of the social unrest that is unfolding simultaneously.

For some Blue Jays fans, it’s been painful to see this play out for those players — those people — who we’ve grown to care for through the years. While most seemed to have been relieved that there would be no special exemption for the team to travel back and forth across the border, the outcome is this surreal scene of a nomadic franchise that won’t play its first ‘home’ game until Aug. 11.

The question of whether baseball should be played at all hangs ominously over the opening of the season, as does the question of whether the season can reasonably continue or conclude with COVID-19 rates continuing to spike. With the news that a third of the Miami Marlins’ roster and some of their staff have tested positive in the past 48 hours, the question follows as to whether anyone can truly enjoy this season as it begins.

In the few small samples that we’ve seen stream across our screens so far, there’s some small degree of joy that returns when we get the chance to find ourselves — at a distance — from the old ballgame. To have our spirits raised by seeing Bo Bichette hit a home run in an intrasquad game shows how hungry our hearts are for something to cheer about.

It’s all odd and strange, with canned crowd sounds and empty stadiums. But if there’s one thing that the past months have taught us, it’s to amend our expectations about pretty much everything. There is no “new normal”, there’s just whatever we can manage.

Maybe it’s a distraction or a diversion. For those who are offended by the game’s return, there’s no problem with taking a season away. For those who could use the small bit of happiness that the return of baseball brings, there’s no shame in relishing those small moments.

And yet, with the most recent news hanging forebodingly over baseball, it is a portentous reminder that we should all remain concerned for the safety of all those involved in bringing the game back, from the players to the grounds crew to those who will help look after the players away from the park. There are other elements of our society’s tentative steps towards reopening the economy that should offer us equal concern.

One would have hoped that it’s possible to maintain that trepidation while also finding a little pleasure in the return. Now, we wait and see.

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