This may run contrary to conventional wisdom, but sometimes first impressions are wrong. Take, for instance, Opening Day of the 2020 baseball season, which took place this past Thursday. Like millions of others, I had waited for it. And waited, and waited.
Finally, after months of lockdowns, zoom meetings, public health alerts, social distancing, and bad news on nearly every front, baseball arrived with its hair combed and shoes polished, looking as fresh and hopeful as a first date. Oh, how I yearned to hear that baggy-pantsed umpire behind home plate yell, “Play ball!” Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, Jack. And make room for me on the couch.
Then the game started. We watched the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers. By the second inning, I had gone into free fall. The game wasn’t even close to what I had expected. I guess that’s my fault. I should have known better. After all, I work in a business environment where, if you don’t manage expectations, you’ll get burned out and walked over, not necessarily in that order. But to say that I was shocked wouldn’t even be in the ballpark, as it were.
The players wore face masks, some of them looking like stagecoach robbers. Oversized, cardboard cutouts representing fans gawked stupidly from the stands behind home plate. And players knelt during the national anthem à la Colin Kaepernick and the NFL as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The worst part, despite the best efforts of the play-by-play announcers, was the eery silence of the game itself. It felt like a tennis match without the squeaking or, worse yet, golf. And I make no apologies to golfers.
That isn’t baseball. Or, rather, it is a new kind of baseball, one in which the traditional elements of players-game-fans are morphing into something different. How different? Think of video games and the interaction that occurs there. Interaction does occur, but how will that kind of interaction affect baseball, assuming the current restrictions continue, which looks like a safe bet?
I watched only a few innings, but I suspect that playing ball to cardboard cutouts will change the performance of players. How could it not? I am reminded of the famous social science experiment concerning hand washing in rest rooms. It turns out that if other people aren’t present, most people don’t wash their hands after doing their business. In other words, our behavior changes when no one else is present.
If baseball is anything, it is a game of presence. As Ken Burns noted in his documentary, baseball comes at you from outside time and space, beyond past, present, and future. That’s the reason no time limit exists as in other sports. Theoretically, you could play until the cows come home, as my grandmother used to say. What determines the end of the game is performance, not time, which is why I object to recent efforts to speed up the game, which often amount to superficialities concerning pitch count and the pitcher dawdling on the mound.
We live in an age of distance: physical distance, social distance, ideological distance, technological distance. To be present in such an age will require new expectations. Virtual attendance at games may save baseball, increasing its popularity among all segments of the population and bringing in revenue from advertising and television/internet rights. It may also engage baseball nerds who can run statistical analyses in real time.
Think, too, of the possibilities for creative expression during and outside of games (e.g., hologram fans), the global reach of the sport beyond current limits, and gender equity, all of which may ensure baseball’s success into the future.
However, watching Opening Day forced me to recognize that such a future likely does not include me. I never thought I would say this, but I am too old for the sport, which, once they iron out the wrinkles, will be a young person’s game. I don’t mind that. After all, I remember seeing Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax in person. And, as the song goes, they can’t take that away from me.
Or can they?
Images from “MLB cutouts step in for baseball fans in stands on Opening Day,” ESPN. See Cleveland Indians (@Indians), Jersey Joe (@JerseyJoe50), George Kittle (@gkittle46).