Baseball’s greatest gift in 2020 might come in its ugliest outcome: Failure.

A successful return to the field would be uplifting, but an unsuccessful one might teach a more valuable lesson.

An empty Fenway Park.
The sounds of baseball could be back at Fenway Park within two weeks, with games happening within a month. –Getty Images

COMMENTARY

In what passes for normal at this unhinged time, the best way to argue for Major League Baseball in 2020 is to point to something from 75 years ago. Unlike most things connected to the sport these days, that’s not due to baseball’s own shortsighted incompetence.

Nor is it a problem they — or we — are unique in needing to face.

“My feeling is that baseball is exactly the right thing for the country right now to help us get back to some sense of normalcy,” Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said Wednesday night. “We need baseball in this country. It’s the greatest game ever invented. I couldn’t imagine summertime without baseball, and specifically without baseball at Fenway Park. Hopefully it can provide some small sense of distraction and joy and fun and relief for people who have been locked in their homes and dealing with this really difficult situation.”

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It’s a cloyingly sweet image, befitting the gooey warmth in which multi-billion dollar conglomerates that had to trade their best players and raise ticket prices in the same winter’s traffic. It’s also not without precedent, peer, or logic, this Kennedy homage to a Roosevelt, a Zoom Near Venetian Blinds as low-rent Fireside Chat.

Kennedy’s words harkened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” from 1942, when the baseball-fan president gave commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis the blessing to play on during World War II. When the enemy was far less visible, and of far more tangible threat to professional-age players, hundreds of which left the game to fight abroad.

You likely know this story if you’re a baseball diehard, on account of the age. You’re probably also the sort who picked up a print newspaper Thursday morning, seeing Kennedy and chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s presser tucked behind and amid the profound failure at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the high-wire act just to get kids in school this fall, the mushrooming infection numbers nationwide (while other world powers have things increasingly in check), and the continued reminders today’s threat remains further from being history than from its beginnings.

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Wednesday morning, the NFL pushed its early August Hall of Fame Game and enshrinement to 2021. Auston Matthews, the NHL’s biggest young star, contracted coronavirus while working out with a group of other players in Arizona. Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 tennis player, perhaps ever, got it amid a half-dozen others who played in the exhibition series he helped organize. NBA insider Shams Charania had reports of four players testing positive just in the last 48 hours.

Mystic Valley Regional won’t play football this fall, the first of undoubtedly many. November’s New York Marathon is canceled. Division 3 Bowdoin College shelved all varsity sports until at least January. We can, and will, see it all roll on through the July 1 MLB reporting date, the July 23 Opening Day, and all the other “normalcy” being assembled on shifting sands.

It’s what FDR would want, I suppose. What we’d have all wanted when we were teens and pre-teens, that time — to borrow some of Chad Finn’s thoughts from earlier this summer — when we were all too young to care about the details. Hundred-page dossiers about safety protocols, wet rags, and game-calling by TV feed. Players lockering in Fenway luxury suites to social distance. Pawtucket’s affiliated farewell likely being as a taxi-squad base.

And the lurking unknowns.

“Needless to say, there are going to be things once we start doing this that we’re going to learn,” Bloom said. “Not everything is going to be perfect right off the bat, but we feel we’re going to have a very good setup.”

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In normal times and now, we can’t really ask for much more than that. I don’t fault baseball for throwing its hat out there, getting over itself, and trying to get on the field. I would merely stress that the grandiose terms in which Kennedy and others like him are speaking, of a wonderful season that will be upon us before you know it, be kept in context. (The sort Kennedy did offer when prompted.)

“I hope that we can have fans back in the stands because of the competitive advantage it gives you to have fans, but I don’t know that we will,” Kennedy said after indirectly citing MLB’s inclination to defer to local governments on attendance specifics at games. “It’s probably a little bit of me personally projecting my own hope that fans will be back at Fenway Park. I anticipate it being extremely odd, when we get back, playing Major League Baseball games in front of no fans.”

It’s all odd. It’s going to be odd for a long time. The only thing keeping it from full-on, screaming-out-the-window absurdity is those war-addled seasons of the 40s, when teams played on without stars and won World Series that count like all the others. When the government could ration gasoline and meat without protest.

Except, of course, that’s glossing the history. There were protests. Loud ones. The sort that would certainly find homes in all the modern-day social media hovels. It took the massive, inescapable trauma of Pearl Harbor to truly change public opinion and force the reflection needed to win the war.

The reality here is both simple and sad: For millions upon millions of us, in one direction or the other, this all doesn’t seem real. The trauma has been escapable. New England has some of the lowest COVID-19 transmission rates in the country at the time of this writing, owing both to our behaviors and — frankly — luck of the draw.

We don’t need a baseball season. We don’t need sports right now. They’ll be a wonderful distraction, sure. They’ll pay some bills. They’ll offer hope. Even the most vocal critics will have a hard time not getting swept up; it was irrational love that drew us to these games as kids and has kept us coming back.

Distraction’s not what we need, though. We need continued wake-up calls. A process which sports, frankly, started; the NBA’s almost immediate shuttering on March 11 conveyed this pandemic was not like those we’ve seen before.

A successful return to baseball, joyous as that would be, isn’t going to offer many lessons. The sport built on failure might offer its most valuable lesson in that.

If the season needs to be suddenly aborted again due to outbreak. If a high-profile athlete, at the peak of his or her power, has an equally high-profile fight with the virus. If, and it’s awful to even write, that fight ends badly, for either them or their family.

It’s a grotesque thing to consider. And that’s the point. Normal is not near.

A point that seems a little too conveniently ignored, as we start to step into solutions when too many of us still haven’t even fully grasped the problem.


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