Leave it to Rogers Hornsby, who starred for the St. Louis Cardinals a century ago, to find the words that neatly fit our troubled times.
“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball,” Hornsby once said. “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Spring is here, but baseball — alas — is not. Major League Baseball had planned to open its gates on Thursday with a full slate of games, spread out from Toronto to San Diego, Seattle to Miami. It was to be the earliest league-wide opener ever, with a few more off days baked into the regular season and the World Series still scheduled to end before November.
Now those plans, like seemingly everything else in the world, have been scrambled by the coronavirus pandemic. The season has been postponed indefinitely, the players scattered, the ballparks shuttered. Mike Trout practices chipping from his balcony to his foyer. Gerrit Cole and his wife play catch in their yard. And Noah Syndergaard undergoes Tommy John surgery, because the Mets are still the Mets.
The opening day we expected is gone: the traditional parade in Cincinnati; the afternoon chill of the games in the Midwest and Northeast; the red, white and blue bunting along the facing of mezzanines, the ace-versus-ace matchups in 15 ballparks. The natural rhythms of the pastime are off.
“You get so close to opening day and the start of the season and it’s not here,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said on Wednesday. “All the work that goes into that, that’s disappointing. That’s frustrating. But you also temper it with: This is all bigger than me and us and baseball.”
Instead of games, we have negotiations, as the players and the owners try to account for service time in case the season never takes place. If a season is played, myriad details would have to be sorted: When would it start, how many games would be played, and when would it end? Could there be more doubleheaders, with each game lasting only seven innings, minor-league style? Perhaps neutral-site postseason games stretching into November, and maybe beyond?
It is all under consideration as baseball, like every other industry, plunges into the great unknown.
As fans, we can dive into new baseball books — “The Wax Pack” by Brad Balukjian, “Swing Kings” by Jared Diamond, “Buzz Saw” by Jesse Dougherty, and more. We can sharpen our knowledge from the trove of trivia quizzes on Sporcle. And we can hop into the YouTube time machine and pull up a game from the past.
For its part, MLB Network is gamely simulating opening day on Thursday with a marathon of five past openers, from noon to midnight, and M.L.B. will stream 30 games on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — one classic game for each club. But even that fun is tinged with the uncertainty of the present.
There’s a rookie Derek Jeter in 1996, punctuating his first opener with a home run for the Yankees in Cleveland. Jeter is scheduled for induction to the Hall of Fame in July, but will it be safe to cram 80,000 people into cozy Cooperstown, N.Y.? There’s Madison Bumgarner in 2017, homering twice for the San Francisco Giants in Arizona. Bumgarner is the new ace of the Diamondbacks, but when will he actually take the mound in Sedona red?
Every other season, opening day lines up well with the words of George Costanza, that infamous former Yankees executive: “Spring! Rejuvenation! Rebirth! Everything’s blooming, all that crap!” This year, the flowers may have already bloomed by the time the games start, and it might even be summer.
But when baseball returns — if it does — opening day will represent more than usual, a powerful signal that we can all resume our comfortable routines. No other sport serves as such a daily companion for its fans: at the ballpark, on TV, radio or smartphone, even just somewhere in the background.
“Our job when we come back, ultimately, is going to be bigger than the game and all of us as well,” Boone said. “As we’ve seen throughout time, sports can play a role in the healing, a diversion, a distraction, a sense of normalcy.”
We need baseball out there beyond our windows. Until it returns, we are all Rogers Hornsby.
James Wagner contributed reporting.