It was supposed to be one of the most anticipated matchups of the year.
Before a pandemic forced MLB to postpone its season, the Nationals were scheduled to host the Houston Astros on July 3-5 in a rematch of last fall’s World Series. With a championship banner hanging at Nationals Park and boos following the Astros everywhere, fans would’ve been treated to an exciting weekend of baseball while celebrating the country’s independence.
“It would’ve been a good matchup,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said on a Zoom call with reporters Saturday. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. It’s kind of sad, the whole thing. We were looking forward to a huge ring ceremony with fans. We didn’t get that. The raising of the banner, we didn’t get that. It’s going to happen eventually, but not having it kind of stinks.
“But you know what? Moving forward, we’re back, we are going to play. It’s nice to be back, nice to see the guys. Nice to watch the guys actually work out and throw together.”
Baseball is an integral part of many Americans’ annual July 4 celebrations. It’s a day many minor-league clubs across the country come as close to selling out as they can. MLB teams don special uniforms and hold military tributes before first pitch. Some fans just use it as an excuse to go outside and play a game of catch while enjoying the day off.
This year, everything is different. The 2020 MLB season has yet to begin, while the minor leagues were called off completely. A lack of baseball games on the schedule only presented yet another reminder of the extraordinary state of the country, and the world, amid a crisis that’s left millions infected and even more out of work.
Though as different as things might be, there was still baseball being played this weekend. Max Scherzer faced live hitters at Nationals Park. Mookie Betts was shagging flyballs in the Dodger Stadium outfield. Manny Machado was back in a batter’s box at Petco Park. It was July 4, and fans could open up social media or turn on the TV and get a taste of baseball again.
Progress is being made. After weeks of negotiations between MLB and the players union that went nowhere, teams reported to their respective ballparks this week for their first practices together since the hiatus began in March. The first round of testing showed a promising rate of only 1.2 percent positives out of the 3,185 players and staff members tested. Yes, this season will be different—only 60 games, no fans in attendance and extensive health protocols in place—but everything is different right now.
Of course, the feeling is bittersweet for many. The health risks are paramount, with even some of the players such as Ryan Zimmerman and David Price choosing to opt out of the 2020 season rather than put themselves in a position that could be dangerous for them or their families. There are plenty of players, media and fans that feel it’s unwise to put on a season at all during a pandemic.
But when the money involved reaches the billions, there will be every effort made to salvage as much as possible during a crisis. That is the reality. But here’s another one: Even though America isn't ready to return to normal, that doesn't mean the country can't try to move forward.
Thousands of people from ballpark workers to baseball operation departments rely on MLB for their source of income. Even more look to baseball itself for a necessary distraction from day-to-day life. The decision to put on a season isn’t just about teams trying to recoup some of their losses.
It’s OK to be worried about the risks involved in putting on a season. In fact, fans should be worried. People’s lives will be at stake, and the more attention the risks get, the more pressure that will be put on the league to do everything it can to ensure its workers’ safety.
But at the same time, it’s also OK to get excited about the sport’s return. Baseball has a deeper meaning to those who have taken the time to invest themselves in the game. No one should be shamed for tapping back into that passion after spending months without the sport.
There are much bigger things to worry about right now than how Scherzer will look on Opening Day when he will reportedly face Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees. Many people won’t even be able to afford the luxury of paying close attention to the sport while they focus on providing for their families or caring for infected love ones.
But on July 4, there was baseball again. Nothing about the game looks even remotely normal right now. Then again, nothing about the world in general looks normal right now. Why should baseball be any different?
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