The Strangeness of Baseball During a Pandemic

Cardboard cutouts stand in for fans in the stands at the Oakland Coliseum for the 2020 baseball season. (Oakland Athletics / Twitter)

I was supposed to be writing something important this evening. One of those the-world-is-burning–type articles. But baseball started, and I got distracted.

While the first official pitch of 2020's abbreviated 60-game regular season won't be thrown until this weekend, Monday night’s exhibition game between the Giants and A’s took my attention away from the world for a few innings.

As the sun set yesterday evening, I sent out a text of distress, asking a good friend for their streaming password so I could watch the A’s broadcast. Once the eagle landed, I was in business: I poured a healthy portion of boxed red wine into my favorite mug, and pulled my beanbag chair so close to my 32-inch TV that I considered wearing a mask as well.

I promise you my intent was to watch a little bit of the game and write that article later. But baseball has an all-consuming effect, especially when it's been away for so long.

I mean, it’s the middle of summer, and I hadn't seen a single home run. So when Oakland A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty dropped a bomb in the bottom of the second inning, I excitedly clapped loud enough for my neighbor, the self-identified “OG vato” from Santa Cruz, to hear it. He’s a big-time Giants fan, and just about every time we cross paths in the apartment complex, he playfully demands I take my A’s cap off. I never do.

A photo of a television showing the A's vs. Giants exhibition game on July 20, 2020.
A photo of a television showing the A's vs. Giants exhibition game on July 20, 2020.

Ah, the power of sports. Bringing people together, even when we disagree, and even when we’re apart. Or, um, supposed to be apart: there’s still a pandemic going on, but somehow there were groups of men gathered in a dugout on each side of a white diamond in Deep East Oakland.

I couldn't fully get into the game; the mental notes and health critiques kept popping up.

On the plus side, I noticed the way the TV announcers—normally in the same booth, an arm’s length apart—stayed apart in adjacent booths, divided by a translucent glass, and still maintained fluid communications.

On the eerie side, I kept focusing on the cardboard cutouts in the crowd. It started with a Where’s Waldo-esque game of looking for familiar faces on the poster boards. Then, as the TV cameras showed the “crowd” from different angles, it turned into a blatant reminder that this was far from a normal baseball game, both funny and scary. It didn’t help that when I first noticed the relief pitchers sitting in the rows behind the traditional bullpen, not too far from the fake people, my initial reaction was, "Oh—they’ve got moving cardboard cutouts too?!"

On the questionable side, I kept thinking about potential health hazards during the game. Some players wore masks, some players didn't. The umpire stood close to the catcher and batter, calling balls and strikes. I thought: does he have a mask on? (He did.)

I noticed violations of the no-spitting rule. How will they enforce it? Can they enforce it? Spitting and baseball go together like police and brutality; you can’t have one without the other. But you know how it goes on this land: there’s a difference between what’s illegal and what’s enforced.

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For many, baseball starting is a sign that things are getting back to normal. Both NASCAR races and MMA bouts have been happening since May, but baseball is the first of the “big four” sporting leagues to get going again.

The WNBA and NBA seasons will start soon. And already the story of the social media curators within "the bubble" has made for national news; as did the construction of the barbershop in the bubble and the barbers who'll work there, including one from the Bay Area.

From this point on, these sports stories will only be more distractive. People’s attention span is only so long. If you thought there'd be sustained longevity to the disgust at how the pandemic has been handled by elected officials, or that the protests for Black Lives Matter were going to last until the masses marched to the ballot box in November, your imagination is better than the one I’ve rediscovered while homeschooling my three year-old daughter.

A month ago, headlines were centered on companies moving to rectify their institutionalized racism. Last week, celebrity-ism took us on a ride through Nick Cannon’s cancellation, Tory Lanez’s reported assault on Megan Thee Stallion with a deadly weapon and Kanye West’s perpetual public mental breakdown.

Sports is just another layer of distraction. A little something to take the mind off of the pains of the world—you know, like the criminal (in)justice system. Sports, entertainment and pop culture make front-page news, while bumped to the second page is the story of a teenage girl named Grace currently incarcerated in Michigan. Her crime: violating probation by not doing her online homework. In the coming days, it'll be a little easier to overlook Portland, Oregon, where unidentified federal agents have abducted people in unmarked cars in order to quell the 50-plus days of Black Lives Matter protests. (President Trump has not only openly supported these federal actions, he's hinted at imposing them on other cities around the country, including Oakland.)

Yeah, let’s not talk about that, let’s talk baseball. Despite cases of COVID continuing to rise in California, Florida and Arizona, all baseball bastions. Despite people like San Francisco Giants star player Buster Posey opting out of this season because he doesn’t want to put his family at risk of COVID.

Despite the fact the Toronto Blue Jays can’t play home games, because Canadian officials don’t want players traveling between Canada and the United States, where the number of COVID-19 cases is about to top 4 million.

Look, Dr. Fauci threw out the opening pitch at the Nationals' first game back, that’s gotta be a good sign. Right?

Also, because of these games happening, there will be a financial boost for transportation companies, hotels, restaurants, media outlets and more. So the economy can lurch toward getting back on track. Right?

And, again, if baseball is back, that means things will soon be “normal” again. Right?

Na. It won't. Or at least it’s not there yet.

When watching baseball, I should be counting balls and strikes, not how many times my favorite player is shown on camera spitting.

I appreciate the new rules. I appreciate the added health precautions. I appreciate the other historic aspects of last night's game, too: the first-ever woman to coach a Major League Baseball game, Alyssa Nakken, as well as the silent protest from Giants manager Gabe Kapler and some of his players who took a knee during the national anthem.

But I know sports will prove to be a distraction. For some, it'll be a healthy alternative to arguing with their significant other; now they can argue with the umpire instead. But for the majority of us, it’ll be a distraction from the important focus the country seemed to have just over a month ago.

I know, I know: it's not one or the other. Just because we’re talking baseball doesn’t mean we can’t also talk politics. But damn, earlier this summer, when it seemed like we were all having the same conversation, and racism and sexism were being called out left and right—I was interested in seeing that go into extra-innings.

Now it's looking like we're just going back to the ol' ballgame.

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