Major League Baseball started their regular season last night with the Nationals hosting the Yankees and the Dodgers taking on the Giants. The regular season will arrive in St. Louis tonight when ascendant Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty will lock horns with Joe Musgrove of the Pirates. There won’t be the traditional Busch Stadium Opening Day parade. No fans will attend. For the first time ever, a Designated Hitter will take an at-bat in St. Louis during a regular season game. High-fives, fist bumps, and hugs are prohibited, as is all other celebratory contact. Spitting isn’t allowed, though adjusting one’s protective cup is presumably still safe. There will almost certainly be a cutaway during the broadcast to a player or coach wearing a face covering. As of July 22nd, there were 66 players across baseball- made public, anyway- either unable to perform due to or recovering from coronavirus. That doesn’t include players, coaches, broadcasters, and umpires who opted out. Welcome to Opening Day during a pandemic.
That description may sound bleak or pessimistic to you. A DH in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati is downright dystopian. I assure you that describing it that way is not my intention. When you haven’t eaten for days, you don’t care if someone hands you a piping hot bowl of Top Ramen*. It’s not foie gras but you’re just happy to have something- anything- to consume. They could play these games on the dusty softball diamonds in Tower Grove Park and we’d all be thrilled just to have baseball back. A baseball game by any other name would still smell as sweet. Simply seeing Matt Carpenter with globs of post-game Black Thorn pizza cheese in his long, flowing beard would make the adventure worth it, but I digress.
*The combination of Flaherty pitching, Kolten Wong’s splendid glove, and a battery of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright is the seasoning packet in this analogy
The last time anyone saw live baseball that counted on TV was back in October. Since then, there’s been a massive sign-stealing scandal, labor strife exacerbated by ownership and Commissioner shenanigans, continued noise about contracting minor league baseball out of 40+ communities, all with the backdrop of a deadly pandemic... just to name a few items that have bedeviled fans and the game since November. Baseball’s off-season has been foolish, terrible, and detrimental to the future of the game. I can say that, and we can feel that way, only because we care so much about the game. The reason for our passion- the game itself- mercifully returns to St. Louis tonight. The Cardinals even released a hype video this morning that captures how so many of us feel right now.
Instead of fixating on the foibles of Rob Manfred or collective bargaining negotiations, we can finally turn some of our attention back to real, honest to goodness baseball. It’s liberating. Going without it has left a hole in our routines. Folks are fond of referring to Jack Buck as having been the soundtrack of St. Louis summer. That’s because he was there as often as baseball was there, which is nearly every night for half of the year. The game, the sounds, the ambient bellows of “cold beer HERE!,” the box scores and stats and standings are your most reliable friend in normal times. Then a pandemic hit, giving all of us our own concerns about health, exposure levels, safe behaviors, isolation, our economic situations, and concerns for our friends and family. Over 140,000 of us in the United States have died due to COVID-19 and nearly 4 million have contracted the virus to date. When we all needed baseball the most, it was rightfully absent in the interest of public safety.
It returns for Cardinal fans tonight. I’ll make it official for you with the obligatory Clydesdale parade:
We can exert at least a little bit of our mental energy on triple digit queso, mammoth homeruns, double plays as smooth as a baby’s behind, and the curious machinations of managers. For a brief moment, the most profound physical distancing in our lives will be when Paul Goldschmidt’s bat distances him 400 feet away from a pitch- definitely a safe distance. Anxiety about flattened curves will be replaced with the thrill of fattened curves exiting an opposing pitcher’s hand for a few hours each night. It’s going to be cathartic.
Baseball is back. Welcome back, friend.