Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

Time to Pass without Our Pastime 

An unused practice field at the New York Yankees’ spring-training facility in Tampa, Fla., March 13 (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Life without baseball and other sports

One day in November or December of last year, one Chinese person got excited about a very special meal. And that’s why my family is subject to sudden-onset homeschooling. That is why my wife is now my barber. That’s why I pass a bleach wipe over the edge of a pizza box delivered to my door. That’s why a thousand people are reported dead in Italy every few days, why seemingly half of the Iranian government is ill. That’s why the prime minister of the United Kingdom — also ill — is confining his nation, the one that invented freedom, to house arrest. 

One Chinese person got a craving and Americans don’t have baseball. I bet that Chinese person was a middle-aged guy, like me. And I bet on that frigid night his old lady was going out with her girlfriends in Wuhan, and he thought it was the exact right time to order the food she hates to see him eating. I would get chicken wings. But he went all the way to pangolin scales or snakes. And he just happened to get something that a sick bat had soiled. Unlike me, he didn’t use bleach wipes on his takeaway orders. And now we are locked inside our homes and baseball has been canceled until further notice. 

We don’t have sports at all. March Madness, gone. Formula 1, suspended. So far there is no relief coming from overseas, where my connection to sports is a little more tenuous. Premier League football is down in the United Kingdom. Australian Rules football is suspended. What is left? 

One Saturday recently, I turned on ESPN2, and there, where sports usually are, I saw a pre-taped broadcast of a stone-skipping competition. It was followed by cup-stacking. It was all part of a one-day annual gimmick to highlight odd competitions. But still, in these times it emphasized the absence of real sports.

The NBA is gone. And we should be less sore about that. It’s been only a few months since figures across the NBA scolded the Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey for defending the liberty protesters in Hong Kong. This was followed by embarrassing scenes in which the NBA censored fans for holding up signs drawing attention to China’s persecution of Uighurs. To make the insult worse, recently the entire Utah Jazz organization somehow found a way to needlessly monopolize more than half of Oklahoma’s small number of available daily tests for COVID-19. To my mind the NBA is consigned to share opprobrium with other craven institutions that act as useful idiots for Chairman Xi, such as the World Health Organization. I’m sorry, hoops fans, but there is a karmic justice in that season’s being interrupted because the snake soup got extra spicy. 

The NHL is another matter. Canadians did nothing to deserve this desolation. More important, Quebecers don’t deserve this. Being located that far north on the globe and lacking your national sport has got to be depressing. How many suicides from seasonal affective disorder does the NHL stop each year? It must be significant. Also, playoff hockey is the only sport my five-year-old daughter tolerates; it is the only thing as frenetic and exhausting as she is. 

But it is baseball that is the most unjust robbery of all. We have time to pass, but not our national pastime. The experience of going to a baseball park has been praised endlessly. The sounds of the concessions, the din of the crowd. And I will miss that experience during this lockdown. But not nearly enough has been said about the joys of spectating from home, where we are temporarily confined.  

The game on television and radio can become the background murmur of a life well lived. Put the game on in the browser, and handle that batch of work emails. Tune in on the radio, and get the chores and home projects done. Flip on the television during a summer party, and stay inside, in the air-conditioned air, when your friend says the pitcher is working on a no-hitter. So what if it’s only the third inning? 

There is a hypnotic quality to television broadcasts of baseball. A pitcher sets the pace of play, and by doing so he sets the pace of a broadcast. Cut to the wide-angle shot of the field, cut back to the shot from the batter’s eye over the pitcher’s shoulder, cut to the close-up of the batter as he adjusts gloves, stance, and helmet. And cut back again. This is a hypnotism worth undergoing to catch up on a little sleep during languorous afternoons. 

Sports are also a reminder that you live in a free and prosperous society. It provides a subtle, nonetheless real, reminder that your nation’s strong young men are not desperately needed in battle and can pursue something just for the sheer joy of it. This also means that the absence of organized sports is a sign that we are somehow less free, that we are being shut in against our will, whether by the virus itself, by the government assuming its emergency powers, or by our own fear. Baseball went away for a few days after 9/11, and its return, especially to New York, was a sign not just of normality but of hope, even courage, and the deep magnanimity of our society. 

Some people I see on social media are trying to make some good use of their time in lockdown, reevaluating their habits, drawing closer to the loved ones with whom they are sheltered. They want to improve themselves. That’s admirable. But the human heart craves more than productivity; it needs play. 

I want to pay over $20 for a parking space outside a stadium named after a bank we bailed out during the last economic crisis. I want to wake up from a Sunday nap watching the game to discover a no-hitter in progress. I want to bellow at horrible umpires. I want to livestream hurling matches from Semple Stadium in Thurles, Ireland, to my flatscreen in New York. I want to see the Sydney Swans in Aussie Rules, and the Olympics in Tokyo. What I long for most of all in this period of social distancing, self-quarantine, and shelter in place, is the roar of a crowd. 

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