As Much as I Miss Baseball, This Fanless, Pandemic Opener Leaves Me With an Empty Feeling

Illustration: Eric Barrow (Getty Images)

In 1943, with their roster torn asunder by players called into military service for World War II, the Philadelphia Eagles moved to Pittsburgh for the year, merged with the Steelers, and became known as the Steagles.

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The following year, it was the Chicago Cardinals who picked up and merged with the Steelers, becoming known as “Card-Pitt,” or, as they went 0-10, the “Carpets.”

And in 1944 and 1945, the Philadelphia Phillies tried to make “Blue Jays” their nickname, even though they kept “Phillies” on their jerseys. Needless to say, it didn’t stick.

These historical footnotes all were set to blend together in the present day, as the Toronto Blue Jays, barred from playing their home games in Canada by a federal government that has actual respect for science, were reportedly heading to Pittsburgh for the 2020 season, making the Steel City a two-team town in the majors for the first time since 1915, when the Pittsburgh Rebels of the Federal League played their second and final season. Except, the state of Pennsylvania put the kibosh on that plan, so now the Blue Jays are becoming the baseball version of Ogie Oglethorpe, what with the litigation, the notoriety, their subsequent deportation to Canada, and that country’s refusal to accept them.

Not that it even really matters where the Blue Jays play their home games, because it’s not like there are going to be any fans in the stands cheering for anyone. And as much fun as it might have been to think of the players who suited up for both Pittsburgh and the Blue Jays — a group ranging from Jose Bautista and Dave Parker to Gift Ngoepe and Brandon Cumpton, it’s really hard to get excited about such baseball miscellanea right now.

It’s hard to get excited about baseball right now, period. That’s not to say baseball hasn’t been missed through the entire spring and half the summer, or even that the 60-game season is such a perversion of the sport as to render it meaningless. If Major League Baseball can pull it off, we’ll get two months of baseball and three rounds of playoffs. By the end of last May, four of the six division winners were in first place and three of the four wild-card teams were where they’d eventually finish. Yes, the world champion Nationals stood ahead of only the Giants and Marlins in the National League, but for the most part, this schedule isn’t going to generate the wacky randomness that a lot of people are making it out to be set up to generate.

For some fleeting moments, yes, it will be possible to put aside the awfulness of this idea and enjoy Mike Trout smashing dingers, Gerrit Cole blazing his fastball past hitters, and the Detroit Tigers turning routine grounders into Little League home runs. It’s going to be on TV and it’s going to be entertaining, and there’s no use in pretending that however bizarre and ill-conceived it all is, that everything surrounding what happens on the field ruins what’s on the field. Waiting 20 minutes at the Taco Bell drive-thru and what happens afterward, after all, doesn’t make those Chalupas any less delicious.

Will there be some weird stats? Yeah. Will some players’ career numbers not be all that they could have been as a result? Yeah. But also, Ted Williams spent three years in his prime fighting in World War II, then played a combined 43 games — hitting .406 — in 1952 and 1953 as he missed most of those seasons fighting in the Korean War.

So far, only a handful of players have opted out of participating in this season. Might that eventually hinder the career numbers of Buster Posey and David Price, and their Hall of Fame chances? Could Michael Kopech’s promising career be headed off the rails? Maybe. But they also made the decisions that were right for them, and that nobody should have had to have made in the first place.

As much as MLB would like to provide some kind of escape — check that, as much as MLB’s boosters say MLB would like to provide some kind of escape, because what MLB would like is simply to stanch the losses on its balance sheets — the problem with this season is the inescapable hubris and stupidity of staging it.

Utilityman Hunter Dozier on Wednesday became the latest member of the Royals to test positive for coronavirus, the eighth Kansas City player stricken by COVID-19. Catcher Salvador Perez is recovered and ready to catch in the opener, but the Royals are going to go into the season without two members of their starting lineup, Dozier and first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, and 40 percent of their starting rotation with Brad Keller and Jakob Junis out.

The Royals all have been around these infected teammates throughout the makeshift spring training this month, and on Wednesday they headed to St. Louis for an exhibition game against the Cardinals, before moving on to Cleveland and Detroit for the start of the regular season. How anyone can endorse this traveling Petri dish as anything other than unnecessary and negligent is confounding until you remember that this is America, and in particular, the Royals play in Missouri, where the governor last week ignored doctors’ advice and went around with his face uncovered, saying, “Dang masks.”

Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier, who has been wearing a mask during exhibition games, has had to deal with idiots calling him a “sheep” because he’s behaving with the slightest degree of responsibility in the face of a pandemic that has killed more people in this country than live in Charleston, S.C.

As the baseball season stretches from now through October — again, if they don’t have to pull the plug, but then, what would even convince them to do so? — you’ll be able to plug bigger and bigger cities into that phrase about how many people have died as a result of the virus. St. Petersburg, Fla., is the home of the Rays, and has a population of 265,351. The Blue Jays start the season there on Friday. What will America’s numbers look like when they go back on August 21?

It would be nice to think that the Blue Jays’ season south of the border could wind up in the same kind of historical potpourri jar as the Steagles and Carpets, one-season wonders born out of crisis. But that’s not what any of this season is going to be.

As much as baseball has been missed, the pandemic that shut the sport down in the first place not only hasn’t been resolved, but continues to get worse through most of the United States. Starting the season now, traveling from city to city as players incubate the virus and test positive days later, shows that baseball really is still the national pastime, just in the worst way possible, and everyone in the sport and who loves the sport is going to have to reckon with that during a season that’s going to happen when we all know it shouldn’t.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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