Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Baseball has served as a marker of time in America, a constant across the years explains James Earl Jones in his role as fictional writer Terence Mann in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” “People will come,” he tells his new friend Ray, played by Kevin Costner, a man who has plowed under his corn crop in Iowa to build an improbable baseball field. “And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.”
The game, he concludes, “reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
But now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t come. We aren’t even invited. On Monday, governors of New York, California and Texas said that professional sports can return in their states – but only without spectators, as outlined in their respective states’ reopening plans.
While many sports – the Belmont Stakes, golf, football – are trying to find their comeback road, in many ways during this dark and terrible time, it is the absence of America’s pastime in particular, and the complicated conversations about its return, including those regarding players’ salaries, that marks our current moment. Major League Baseball is considering a Fourth of July opening for a shortened 82-game season without fans, something that the governors of states like California and New York, states that have worked the hardest to flatten their curves and make the numbers go in the right direction, have declared a key dealmaker for them to play ball.
Americans are trying to find our normal where we can, some of us working hard towards it, while others seeming to just hope that it will magically reappear one day. For now, my normal is thinking about baseball, because the game of my memories is going to need to serve as the baseball – the America – of my dreams.
I’ve spent most of my professional life loving and writing about sports, and I don’t want to watch a bloated NFL draft broadcast or a grossly shrunken WNBA one. I don’t want to watch a documentary about Michael Jordan or a charity golf match. I’m tired of rooting for Mabel over Olive and I was never really able to make Jelle’s Marble Runs Sand Marble Rally my thing. The return of sports isn’t just about sports for sports’ sake. It’s more than that.
After completing a spring semester teaching sports at Manhattanville College in a world without them – Sports Media, Sports Ethics, Sports & Social Change – and working with students on projects about the impact of Covid-19 on sports, or their own lost seasons as student-athletes, it became clear to me that bringing a part of sports back in a vacuum, without understanding how the rest of society is going to work, isn’t necessarily the step forward that we hope it is.
I want to watch baseball. I want the Red Sox. I want to take my daughter back to Fenway. I want to watch a game and have an internal dialogue with my late father, who left me, among so many other things, a deep knowledge of pitching and batting, and an understanding as to why the infield fly rule is just and right despite my protests every time it happens.
Spectators are important stakeholders in sports. Our deep investments in our teams go beyond the tax dollars that build palatial stadiums and the exorbitant prices for dogs and beers and parking. They help build community, creating – alongside jobs and common cause around a shared objective – a sense of belonging, whether one is sitting at the park or on the couch. We saw that clearly in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when thousands returned just 10 days after the towers fell in New York, battling fears of being in large crowds to see Mets catcher Mike Piazza lift his team to 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, bringing with him not just the hearts of New Yorkers (normally Mets-hating Yankees fans included) but the hearts of an entire nation.
Fanless baseball, we know, is not entirely without precedent. In the wake of the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, the White Sox faced the home team in an empty stadium. With the sounds of the game magnified for those of us watching on television, the bittersweet nature of those empty seats became clear early on when Baltimore first baseman Chris “Crush” Davis smacked a three-run homer, the kind of hit that Bull Durham’s “Crash” Davis would have said had a flight attendant on board.
When the ball finally landed, there was no one there to claim it, no scene in which some older guy shoved a glove-toting kid out of the way to grab the trophy, only to be shamed by those sitting around him until he handed the ball over to the smaller hand, cheers erupting, all right with the world.
We have been a nation without baseball before. Both World War I and II took some seasons with them, eventually creating a void so great that the powers that be eventually let – gasp! – women play ball.
But without fans in the seats, what do sports mean? We cannot talk about sports without its fans. Those fans are part and parcel of the sports world, stakeholders like any other. Eliminating them is eliminating a critical element of the spectator nation that is the United States, in which far more of us watch than play, grudgingly doing the wave when asked, feeling part of something bigger than any one of us, something we cannot create on our own. Just as seeing Jackie Bradley Jr. twist his body and leap feet off the ground to make a game-saving catch is part of being a Red Sox fan, so too is hearing Jerry Remy tell us from the booth that “They’re on their feet at Fenway.”
Yet it is precisely these moments that make it unthinkable to allow baseball’s return with its fans, understanding that they don’t just react to the players and plays on the field – they react to each other. It took one soccer match in Italy, just 90 minutes (plus stoppage time) of virus-filled particles of disaster flying out people’s mouths – GOAAAALLLLLLLLLLL! – every time the ball went into the net, to wreak havoc on the village of Bergamo, a village that just days earlier had been bursting with pride over its beloved Atalanta facing Valencia in a Champions League match.
The complications of baseball’s return, of course, go beyond the role of the spectator. As California’s governor Gavin Newsom has made clear, baseball isn’t just about the nine guys we see on the field – it’s about the accompanying workforce. There is much to figure out beyond putting players on the field and leaving spectators at home, and when we figure those things out, we will be doing the hard work we need to do to make our society whole again.
Getting baseball back should be our reward for doing this right, not a goal leading the way. When we fix the parts of society that Covid-19 has fractured or, more precisely, has exposed as broken, we get back sports. Not the other way around.
Because how can we get back camp or sports or movies or even school – or any of the things that make so many of us feel “normal” – until we do this right, until we deal at every level with what is before us? Some of it we will never get back, most especially the more than 90,000 lives we have lost – a number of people, were they still with us and not lost to a delayed and chaotic response to a global pandemic, that would need not one but two of America’s largest baseball parks to contain them. And a number that today represents a depth of suffering that can never be contained.