As I type this, the Reds are losing late, which has happened about half the time they’ve played so far. Seasons like this feel as though they lose much more often. Bullpen and blowup and hip impingement and Tommy John … and Tommy John: These Aprils make it difficult to sit still in the stadium and let the game unfold.
We could, of course, not be sitting in the ballpark at all.
Sporting events — and baseball games especially, given the way the national pastime twines around our national history — mean that everything is OK. They mean we have the time, safety, and resources to care about men and women undertaking playground games on an luxury suite scale. Even when the bullpen is not OK, we’re OK.
Circumstances have to be very not OK for sports not to happen. The Olympics were cancelled during World War II; the globe was not OK. In the aftermath of 9/11, with teams stranded far from home fields and fans not particularly eager to sit amassed in those stadiums, major league baseball was suspended while the nation was very much not OK.
The Reds were in Chicago when the attacks took place. I attended the first home game at Riverfront after 9/11. A hole in the center field wall gave view to the dirt and cranes which would eventually become the Great American Ball Park. As a grad student cobbling together multiple jobs and a thesis, I wasn’t attending many ballgames at the time, but it seemed a patriotic duty to show up. So I bought a walk-up ticket in the red seats, drifted down to the blue, and felt actual, fight-or-flight fear as I paced up and down the ramps I’d been walking since childhood.
A droning airplane in the distance made the entire crowd turn and anxiously scan the skies. We were forcing the OK, but only because we knew that forcing the OK would make the actual OK arrive eventually.
This week in Baltimore, we were once again reminded of the need to reach OK.
The riots forced the closure of the city’s schools and downtown district. In a different context, statistician Bill James once observed that a closed-minded Major League Baseball might as well lock the gates to stadiums. His vision came to pass at Camden Yards this week. The Orioles cancelled two games then played one, but the team didn’t honor, or sell any tickets. The National Anthem was played. The players took their positions. Balls left bats and the dugouts were full, the Baltimore skyline loomed in the distance. The only witnesses were the players themselves and those paid to be there.
Tweets with the words “weird,” “eerie,” and “surreal” streamed from the press box. Locals approached the historical oddity with timid humor — a food vendor offered an “Outside the Park Meal Deal” and one Oriole player signed faux autographs in the air, doffing his cap to the silence booming through the stadium.
The game-but-not-a-game in Baltimore was a stomach-turning affair: It was a baseball game the public was not trusted to attend. Home run balls ricocheted through the rows of abandoned seats. Orioles fans were not permitted to participate in their own OK at a time when they perhaps needed to most. I’m sure they’ll feel normal again, after a time.
But like the stadium itself, the entire exercise was rather empty.