Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 18, 2021

The Great Game Returns

There is snow on the ground here in New England, with more on the way. That is hardly unexpected since barely two weeks ago, down in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney’s pet rodent forecast an extended slog through the depths of the dead season. At least those of us who live in these northern climes are familiar with the extreme conditions that can accompany February dates on the calendar. Residents of other regions were less prepared this week, when snow and ice blanketed a huge swath of the country and temperatures plunged below zero as far south as Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The uncommon cold caused energy demand to spike and power grids to fail, adding to the woes of citizens served by utility companies already struggling with blackouts brought on by the collapse of power lines from high winds and the weight of frozen water.

With winter’s fangs sunk deep into our psyche like the serrated teeth of a particularly cruel trap clamped on the leg of an unlucky animal, escape may seem impossible. But then the words come. They are the best four words in sports, delivered this year, as always, just when needed most by our frostbitten souls. They are the clarion call of the Great Game, an edict that must be answered by players and fans alike. They are an affirmation of baseball’s place in American culture, as timeless as the bunting that will front the stands on Opening Day. They are a promise, delivered in a cold and dark time, that the months of warmth and light will return as the longest season builds to its stretch run in high summer. They are the symbol of the annual return of unbridled hope, of fresh starts, clean slates, and all thirty teams equal in the “games behind” column of the daily standings. They are the instantly recognizable opening chord of the Great Game’s annual symphony: pitchers and catchers report! Another Spring Training has begun.

The words are still all those things, for they can never fail to be. But this year, as the batterymates assemble, with their position player compatriots soon to follow, as the first balls are tossed and swings taken, baseball’s four magic words are also a reminder of what we have endured, and of how far we still have to go.

One cannot contemplate this year’s training camp without flashing back twelve months, to the Spring Training during which COVID-related news grew by the day, from a trickle to a stream to a suddenly rushing torrent. Almost overnight baseball went from keeping a wary eye on a distant threat, to closing clubhouses to the media to protect players (even as the stands at exhibition games were packed cheek by jowl with fans), to suspending the season before it had even started.

The Great Game was not unique, of course. Across the entire landscape of sports play was paused and schedules abandoned, as America and the world confronted an invisible threat. At the time, with a naïveté fueled in equal parts by the lack of candor from national leaders and our collective unwillingness to face hard truths, we fans initially looked upon the pause as just that, a short timeout after which play, not to mention the familiar rhythms of daily life, would resume.

That misbegotten notion is but a tattered memory, one interminable and bitter year later. The costs have been staggering. By this weekend more than 28 million Americans will have been infected with the coronavirus. By the start of next week at the latest, the U.S. death toll will top 500,000. Infections and deaths were an unavoidable reality inherent in the very definition of a pandemic, but both numbers being more than twice that of any other nation is probably not exactly what some politicians have in mind when they boast of “American exceptionalism.”

Baseball, like every sport, has also paid a high price. Last year’s negotiations – if they can even be called that – between owners and players over the resumption of play were an ugly display of hostility and mistrust. The truncated 60-game schedule eventually mandated by commissioner Rob Manfred was a shadow of a season, its credibility saved only by the World Series triumph of the Dodgers, a manifestly great team. Even that minimal campaign was nearly derailed by a rash of positive cases right at the start, before stricter protocols brought improved testing results. And almost all of it, until the very end of the postseason tournament, played out in empty stadiums, the experience of a trip to the ballpark one more of life’s joys denied by COVID-19.

Even as the cycle begins anew, challenges remain. This will be a Spring Training like no other. No crowds of fans lining the fences of practice fields, watching their heroes work out. No groups of kids sprinting after lazy fly balls spiraling foul, as more than a few of the adults looking on wonder how unseemly it would be were they to join the chase. Only a select few members of a team’s faithful, perhaps a couple thousand, able to attend exhibition games. Come Opening Day the bunting will be in its usual place, but thousands of ticket holders will not be, with the return of stadiums filled with raucous fans still months away.

Traditions outside the foul lines are impacted as well. After last year’s induction ceremony was canceled, the Class of 2020 will be welcomed into the Hall of Fame twelve months late, but inside, at a televised event, not outdoors where free admission normally attracts tens of thousands of Great Game fans to little Cooperstown on a midsummer weekend.

And yet there is hope, for Spring Training has begun, and hope burns brightly in the heart of every fan when pitchers and catchers report. Hope that one’s favorite team will have a successful season. Hope that one’s personal hero will post career numbers. Hope that as the count of vaccinated Americans steadily rises, stadiums now being used as sites for the mass administration of Moderna or Pfizer doses can return to their intended purpose. Hope that by the time the longest season has run its course, in the days of waning light before another winter sets in, as the Yankees and Dodgers, or Padres and White Sox, or whichever two teams are the last ones standing, make ready for the decisive game of the 2021 World Series, we fans will once again be on hand to hear them when the best two words in sports ring out: play ball!

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