My first Professional Opinion Sharer’s reaction when I heard that schools and businesses were closing, along with all sporting events, concerts, and bars, was: There are going to be so many murders. So many. Entire families cooped up together in a single house is going to result in a higher death toll than anything coronavirus could possibly attempt.
Baseball tonight! https://t.co/x5aBh7915N
— Ashley Davis (@AshleyDavis32) March 15, 2020
“Baseball tonight!” my fellow RN writer Ashley Davis shouted at me and everybody else from across the internet.
“I LIKE THIS,” I yelled back from my quarantine. But not really. I just clicked a little heart next to what she’d typed, but this is how we have to think in terms of communication now.
She was shouting about the pickup sandlot game Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer and Momentum organized in Arizona. There was little warning, no advertising, zero pre-game show, and not one electronic scoreboard. The production team consisted of two guys holding up their phones. It was baseball so pure and so basic there was a cutoff jean shorts sighting.
It was beautiful, beautiful, and no scorekeeper was present, but it was an official MLB game since Derek Dietrich was hit by a pitch multiple times. By the end of the night they were shagging flies with one of those fat red toddler bats. The MVP received a large bottle of hand sanitizer–not one of those mini trial versions, mind you, but the ones we used to be able to find at Sam’s Club. All in all, a true folk song.
The National Anthem consisted of someone in the back singing, “O say can you see, and the home of the brave… that’s it. That’ll have to do.” In a sudden era of having to do while having without, it did.
Teams were chosen by throwing a bat in the air vertically, then catching the handle as the barrel plummeted towards the ground. Hand over hand, the two captains took turns holding on to decide their fate.
If the impact of the entire event might be presented in one frame, it’s that one–multiple hands grasping the bat for dear life. Everything has been cast into the air. We have to hold on.
Ostensibly, the game was a fundraiser for stadium workers whose livelihood has vanished until at least June (donate here.) In the great way of baseball, it was more than that. It was a glimmer of Normal.
I can still see my high school U.S. history teacher’s handwriting on the chalkboard (yes, handwriting; yes, chalkboard): “Sports = safety valve.” This, Mr. Horton explained, was in the context of the winding down of the Roaring 20’s and the Great Depression; the theory that any society requires neutral, non-political grounds upon which to deflect our differences and daily concerns. It’s how we let off steam so that we’re not actually letting it off on one another. The Civil War ended in 1865; the Cincinnati Red Stockings came into existence the next year. We’d learned the hard way that we needed a way to fight peacefully. Still do.
The safety valve springs dangerous leaks when it’s abused—by nations swapping doctored drug tests in exchange for Olympics gold, professional teams and university administrators oozing corruption into college sports, and whoever takes multiple bobbleheads directly from the stadium gate to eBay.
We’re about to find out what happens when the safety valve is slammed shut. Professional basketball, college spring football scrimmages, grade school leagues -– it’s gone, and gone for a significant amount of time. Initially, it was three weeks, then eight; a mere twitch of an eyelash in a single lifespan, but in Internet World, that’s an entire geologic age.
At the same time, the Virtue Police have been patrolling social media with their sirens and their signal flares: “How dare you discuss something so trivial in a time like this,” one pearl-clutched at a journalist who committed the mortal sin of reporting on franchise tag movement in the NFL.
He dares to keep the rest of us sane, that’s what. He was desperately attempting to place some Normal, like a jeweler struggling to fit a precious stone into a battered setting.
It’s not often that we’re fully aware of living out history. We are experiencing this right now. We tend to think of history as a relentless march of expected and scheduled events—inaugurations, royal weddings. The implication of living out events so enormous that we’re aware of their significance at the time is a tremendous strain.
The worldwide impacts are a million different threads through a million different lives: How will I make next month’s rent without the tips from my bartending job? What are we going to do with this wedding we have planned for the third Saturday in April? How do you just…postpone a spring break internship? Normal is fragile, and that fragility has shattered for every single one of us, all at once.
TO MIDWESTERNERS:this is what a hurricane is,only more electricity & less wind
FELLOW FORMER FLORIDA RESIDENTS: this is what a blizzard is,only with takeout & less @JimCantore
NIECES AND NEPHEWS: this is what post-9/11 was, only less scary & meaner people in the grocery #COVID19
— Mary Beth Ellis (@Mary_Beth_Ellis) March 16, 2020
I sent Josh the Pilot off to the airport this morning with the feeling that he was shipping out for war. He isn’t, of course–any more than the owner of a small restaurant desperately trying to float the family business on a raft of Styrofoam take-out containers. But in a DVR and streaming era in which we almost never experience the same events at the same time, the onset of a stillborn baseball season has us grasping for the handle of that bat diving towards the dirt.
There is a reason why I cherish the Reds’ first home game after 9/11 more than the 1990 World Series tilt I attended, and the 2002 Kentucky Derby over any Triple Crown performance. It is because these moments represented the defiance of Normal. The very enacting of them means that we are okay. Alive. These horses will run in a circle; these grown men will stand around scratching themselves as we pay to watch them standing around scratching themselves, and eff you to anyone or anything trying to stop it.
Sports is at its best when it’s more than sports.
I’m the rare sportswriter who can pick sports up and put them back down again. The only reason I can is that I have fifteen years worth of prescriptions and therapy laid into creating a sense of identity outside of whether My Team wins or loses–or anything else. It is very, very difficult. I don’t always succeed. Detaching from outside influences is something I must make a conscious decision to do, and you know when it’s hardest? When I feel alone. When I’m frightened. When the outside world is much too much. Sports isn’t just our safety valve. It’s our security blanket.
I’ve stayed away from the gym and exercise classes since this blew up to avoid becoming a potential disease vector for my immunocompromised mother. It’s meant a lot of slinging ten-pound Walmart weights around my little home office, and that’s okay. I’m a weapons-grade introvert who has literally hidden behind doors, my husband, and mounds of tortilla chips at parties. I’ve been training my whole life for this moment.
But this morning I livestreamed a class from one of my favorite teachers, a luminous and placid soul named Meredith Hogan, who wears wonderful long impractical earrings into the studio and sings the beauty of garbage trucks.
“Isn’t that wonderful,” she once exclaimed when the peace of the room was splintered by the emptying of an outside wall dumpster. “Just when we were talking about releasing what we don’t need, the recycling truck came.” Everybody needs a Mer.
Thanks to Internet lag, my learning disability, and general incompetence, there were many times in the class when I had no idea what I was “supposed” to be doing. So I made it up. I did an approximation of Normal. I did what seemed right under the circumstances. No one else saw, or cared. It would have to do. It did.
As we sought our balance together with 120 other people, together yet apart, Mer encouraged us to banish loneliness and fear, reaching instead for wisdom and courage. “Know that when your two lungs expand, they embrace your heart,” she said. The act of living, of drawing breath even through damaged lungs, is an embrace of the core of our very selves.
Though I’d just been eyeing the bookcase full of unread wonders next to me on the floor, all new friends waiting to be luxuriously met, I felt tears join the sweat on my face. I wasn’t merely burning calories or distracting myself from deadlines for sixty minutes. This was… more.
It was multiple hands holding on for dear life.
Editors note: We’ve added the game so you can watch if you missed it.