Tao of Stieb: Longing for baseball a balancing act for MLB fans

Vladimir-Guerrero

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. looks skyward after batting during a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (Carlos Osorio / CP)

A few months ago, my baseball brain would have envisioned a “flattened curve” as a wonky breaking ball being crushed into the seats.

Now, nearly two months into the physical distancing measures to help stem the spread of COVID-19, the notion of a flattened curve is one that brings uneasy hope into the spirits of workers, athletes and fans alike.

By now, baseball should have been a full month into its schedule, and we would all be admonishing ourselves and others with refrains of, “It’s early,” “It’s a long season” and “It’s a small sample.” The nature of baseball and the way its near-daily schedule wends its way into our everyday lives during the season makes its absence feel that much more profound at a moment when we’re looking for excuses to maintain our social connections.

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There have been attempts to fill the gap, with several weeks of secondary options. Watching classic baseball, or MLB stars playing video game versions of themselves and even obscure four-team leagues in the far east, it’s still clear that most of us would at least figuratively give anything to have the game back in our lives.

There are obviously larger concerns, between the public health worries and economic anxieties caused by the virus and ensuing societal lock down. The magnitude of this moment we’re stuck in hits in a different way every day, and we’ll continue to deal with the fallout in one way or another for years to come.

But as the number of cases stops growing in some areas, and as thoughts begin to turn gingerly toward something resembling normalcy, we can be forgiven for looking ahead toward some possibility of the grand old game gracing us with its sights and sounds again.

It’s not that simple, of course, and with inconsistent and low rates of testing in North America and no vaccine in the immediate future, it’s hard to imagine turnstiles flipping and seats filling in ballparks any time soon. Even with all the anticipation of a starved fan waiting for the games to begin again, it’s hard to fathom going to a packed ballpark with all of the apprehension and anxiety that we’ve built up about being in public spaces – and the public being in our space – since this began.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

For now, we’re left to pore over reports and ponder the moonshot proposals of baseball being played in some sort of bio-dome. Such schemes have the effect of igniting hope at the possibility of having some semblance of the game back, and let us dream about seeing Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in powder blue uniforms, and setting our fantasy baseball roster lineups.

But of course it’s not that simple. If the logistics of those plans seem like an unsolvable riddle, the ethics seem like an unresolvable quandary.

We want baseball back, even if it is in some strange form in distant and empty ballparks, and as such, we’ll be tempted to accept a lot of compromises along the way. But can we accept sequestering the thousands of players into some place which may or may not be safer than anywhere else, possibly keeping them away from their families and testing them while others go untested?

And what of all the off-field staff that would find themselves pulled into the bio-dome? How well would they be looked after, and how do we keep them safe in a time where there are so many unknowns?

There have been murmurs about robot umpires, or a universal DH, or temporary realignment, which all sound inviting in the absence of any other action. But there are also discussions around radical changes to the draft and other items that should be collectively bargained for the health, safety and, indeed, the prosperity of the players who make the game the one that we love.

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

As with the re-opening of everything else in our modern society, there are temporary changes that are made in this unparalleled historic moment that can turn into structural changes that are perpetuated for years after the dust settles.

We know that the manner in which this disease has sideswiped our economy will have a transformative effect on everything, and baseball won’t be an exception. Major League Baseball will be able to withstand this challenge, although the minor leagues will undoubtedly see franchises falter — an eventuality that the big leagues won’t likely mourn.

This isn’t to say that change in baseball is a bad thing. The game could use some freshening up. But as we hope for its return, we should aspire to see a full return in due course, and be careful not to accept concessions that could make the game worse for us, for the players and for those whose livelihoods depend on the sport.

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