Tao of Stieb: MLB’s unexpected second off-season provides perspective

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Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. walks off the field during a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

One of the great qualities of baseball is that it is reliable. From February through October, the game is always there.

Day in and day out, your team is back on the field, and there’s a new mini-drama into which you can immerse yourself. It’s all a part of a larger ongoing narrative that stretches back through the series, and the season, and your whole life as a baseball fan. When the world brings you chaos and strife, it’s reassuring to have the game there as a comforting distraction.

That’s why the announcement that Major League Baseball has suspended Spring Training and delayed the start of the season lands with extra weight at a moment like this.

There’s no question that it is the right thing to do, and the move for all sports to postpone and cancel events has been universally supported. This is much bigger than sport, or entertainment, or industry. It is clearly an existential threat.

As we do our best to protect ourselves from the daunting and collective danger of the COVID-19 outbreak, the safety of fans, workers and players has to be paramount as we all undertake abundant caution to keep infection rates as manageable as possible for as long as possible.

Toronto Blue Jays players at the team’s spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla. (Steve Nesius/CP)

But entering into an unexpected second off-season of unknown duration reinforces the momentousness of the moment. Just a week ago, one could have been excused for being preoccupied by the 26th spot on the roster, or the strategic impact of the new “three batter rule” for pitchers. The coronavirus outbreak was present, but somehow distant enough that we could maintain a dedicated focus on the games that divert our attention away from serious things.

Now, as we are being advised to physically create social distance between ourselves and others as a means of stifling the spread of the virus, the value of a friendly distraction like baseball becomes clear. As we prepare to stay in at home for several weeks, we really could have used a ballgame to keep us occupied, but moreover, to keep us connected with others.

If there is one positive thing that sport continues to offer, it is the collective experience of something that we can’t control, but that we connect with at an emotional level. We can all talk about the weather to pass the time, but we can make lifelong friends out of strangers who cheer for the same team as we do. You can create deep roots of camaraderie while rooting for laundry.

Looking out at cities that are becoming unnervingly still, it’s hard not to remember the jam-packed streets of Toronto as the Raptors celebrated their NBA championship with a parade through the city.

In a world that is increasingly disconnected and acrimonious, having something to bind us matters.

None of these sports are gone forever, and there are more important things that should be our focus in the weeks to come. But one is reminded of the moments after 9/11, when it felt as though the world went eerily quiet just as we collectively became distressed over what came next. Shutting down baseball at that time underscored the gravity of the situation, while the return of the game became part of the healing process, especially in New York City.

The problem in the current case is that our sense of normalcy wasn’t taken away by a sudden calamity, but rather, an impending one. We have no idea when the worst of it will hit, nor do we know when it will pass. For those of us who find comfort in the constancy of baseball, entering this moment of undetermined length and unpredictable outcome feels that much worse with the knowledge that the players have dispersed, and the game is on hold.

There are concerns that run deeper still, as fans are left to ponder the fates of those workers who will be most dramatically affected by the sudden stoppage of the games. We tend to express the economic impact of things in dollars, but massive economic disruptions such as this have a far deeper human cost. From the people who work in service positions at the ballpark to the people in the hospitality industry who depend on the traffic created by these events, and to the minor league ballplayers who will remain in limbo as roster decisions go unmade, there are many people in a multi-billion dollar industry who will scramble or suffer while we wait out the worst.

There’s a temptation at a moment like this to redirect our gaze toward the things that matter most. But as we struggle to grasp the graveness of what is to come, it’s not wrong to recognize the importance that is placed upon sports like baseball, and to wish for a moment when it matters again.

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