Opening Day on the South Side of Chicago wouldn’t have been particularly pleasant. Fans would have bundled up in winter clothes to guard against windchills that dipped into the mid-30s. Grouchy reporters would have worked behind closed windows in the press box, sealing them away from both the elements and the ballpark’s ambiance. By the time the Royals and White Sox were underway, the dismal, gray-white skies would have been leaking intermittent sprinkles. Sales of hot chocolate and coffee at the concession stands would have been brisk.
Doesn’t that all sound just wonderful right about now?
The empty shell of Guaranteed Rate Field (heretofore to be referred to as Sox Park) has been sitting dormant since a similarly dismal day last fall, when the second game of a scheduled doubleheader between the noncontending White Sox and Tigers was washed out, becoming the only scheduled game of the 2019 season not to be played. We got in only 2,429 of 2,430. How many will we get this year? Half that? Two-thirds? Three-quarters? Or the worst of all possible outcomes: Zero?
On a clear day, Sox Park gleams on the southern horizon beyond downtown Chicago, its brick facade rising above the tortilla-flat neighborhoods rolling through Printer’s Row, Chinatown and into Bridgeport. The black metal embroidery that lines the top of the stadium marks it as a ballpark, even from a distance, as do the half dozen or so light stanchions that rise above it. The top of the pinwheel scoreboard can also be glimpsed above the roof.
At night, only the light stanchions are evident and only because of the single red light they each emit even when the stadium itself is dark. Given the circumstances, those half-dozen nocturnal red dots of light on the horizon have become metaphorical kin to the East Egg lights of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he painted into his portrait of Jay Gatsby — symbols of possibility and, ultimately, of the price of longing.
For me, the feeling is familiar in an unpleasant way, in what Jean-Paul Sartre might have seen as existential nausea. It takes me to the other side of Chicago baseball at a different time, when another ballpark anchored what was then my extended neighborhood. This was back in 1994, when I was fresh out of the University of Missouri and moved into an apartment three blocks north of Wrigley Field. The move-in date was just a few days after the 1994 strike shut down what had been unfolding as a historic season. It, of course, never started back up.
For the next eight months, I would walk past Wrigley Field on a near daily basis, often stopping to peek in through the cracks of the exterior walls along Sheffield Avenue. Some days the groundskeeper would open up the door in the outfield wall to get at his equipment, and from the outside you could see the grass and the empty stands beyond. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever actually get to see what would have been my first game inside the place. I’ve since seen hundreds.
About a month or so after the strike began, PBS began its original airing of Ken Burns’ epic “Baseball.” I watched every episode enrapt and recorded them onto VHS tapes that I still have somewhere, even though my VCR hasn’t been plugged into anything for about 15 years. And as much as I loved the work, the lack of actual baseball and the canceling of the 1994 World Series often made me experience the documentary as a kind of eulogy, one about a great game that appeared to have eaten itself alive. Thus when MLB TV recently began re-airing the Burns documentary in lieu of spring training games, I was struck with a lightning flash of déjà vu.
But, hey, this is a very different situation from 1994. This time, the loss of baseball that we all started to acutely feel on Thursday is beyond the control of any of us — fans, writers, players, MLB itself. This time, we’re all on the same side and all paying the same kind of price. We are all preoccupied with thoughts more substantial than anything related to a sport, even one that looms so large in the lives of many of us. Even one that holds such a special place in the collective experience of anyone who calls this nation home.
Baseball did return back in the mid ’90s, of course, and I vividly remember going to the Cubs’ home opener in 1995, a sunny afternoon when they took on the Montreal Expos, who were just beginning a steep demise that eventually sent them packing for Washington, D.C. Many fans were slow to forgive baseball for its misdeeds. Some never did. But overall, the sport overcame itself back then, as it always does. In the quarter century since, it has become an economic powerhouse. What else can you call a league that reeled in a reported $10.7 billion in revenue last year? If you want to quantify forgiveness, the number “10.7 billion” works as well as anything.
Things did not feel normal when baseball went missing in 1994. Something felt off. The cancellation of the World Series was an obvious blight on history. Still, as negotiations between the owners and players dragged on and on and on, the rest of regular life kept going. Sports kept going without baseball. Football. Hockey. In Chicago, there especially was basketball, because during those months, Michael Jordan ended his first retirement. We had jobs then, too, that we had to leave the house to go to. We had restaurants and bars. We had friends we could actually see in person.
So to say that things don’t feel normal now is an understatement, and it’s barely analogous to what baseball fans faced in 1994. And yet, there is a similar longing. Back then, it was because we simply missed the game. We were angry that greed had taken it away from us. We were angry because baseball began telling the great story of the 1994 season and never finished it.
Now we miss baseball not because the major leagues are embroiled in any kind of existential crisis but because we know how great it would be to have it right now. We need baseball more than ever, but we understand why it cannot and should not be there for us. No sport fills the gaps of daily existence better than baseball. It is with us every day from late February to late October, with only a couple of off days sprinkled in around the All-Star break. It’s easy to take it for granted.
The loss of Opening Day took from us more than the start of another season but also the symbolic end of winter. No matter how harsh the conditions might have been on Thursday in some of baseball’s capitals, it would have been the annual signifier of the return of spring. What’s more, the loss of Opening Day stole away the anticipation of the long journey to come — the day-after-day unfolding of a championship season of 2,430 games. Baseball’s docket is more than a schedule, it’s a calendar, one that carries us along with its eternal rhythms but also sprinkles in just enough of the unexpected to keep us on our toes.
Now there is just … nothing. Only those red lights shining above Sox Park in the middle of the night.
Every winter, I am asked if I have that time off from work. Sometimes family members who clearly aren’t checking ESPN.com very often ask me something along those lines, even though they ought to know better. Well, if you are reading this, then I don’t have to tell you that baseball never really stops. Or at least it hadn’t until this month and had not since those lonely days in the late summer of 1994. Still, we don’t unplug our baseball pages at ESPN after the World Series champion is crowned. We keep telling baseball’s story because there is always something new.
From a personal standpoint, my workload doesn’t change much at all during the offseason, but there is a different feel to things. The chief difference is that there aren’t any games to go to. Usually, as I typically attend more than 100 games between spring training and the end of the playoffs, that’s a welcome break. (For a while.) With no press box from which to work, I toil at home in solitude, a concept that has welcomed many newbies over the past few weeks.
Well, working at home has its upside, but there are downsides as well, with the biggest one being a building sense of isolation. When the feeling starts to peak for me over the winter, I am sustained by thoughts of Opening Day and all of those games to come. Now it’s hard not to feel stuck in what increasingly feels like an endless winter.
Despite the continuation of work, there is a bit more downtime over the winter than during the season, simply because there are no games. The results are frozen in place, and keeping up with forward-looking projections is a fairly straightforward task once you have your systems in place. There is more time spent on knowledge building and research and bigger-scope writing projects. And beyond the job, there is more time for the non-baseball cultural stuff, more things that we aren’t getting to do right now. (In the middle of finishing this column, I got an alert on my phone that the city of Chicago was closing the lakefront and all public parks to keep people from clustering.)
Most of the time, even during winter, when I’m not spending time with my wife, I tend to fill my downtime with … baseball. This is a different kind of baseball immersion. Sometimes my wife will poke her head into my office and ask what I’m doing. “Baseball,” I will say. “Work baseball or leisure baseball?” she will ask. Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to tell because both can take so many forms, and it’s easy to stay immersed in pretty much any obsession in this day and age.
Baseball is especially rich in these immersive activities because of its long, densely chronicled history and expansive statistical record. We could truly spin out baseball content for years without a single new game ever being played. This is a blessing and a curse. Eventually, the thirst for something new becomes overpowering, and if baseball isn’t providing it, you begin to look elsewhere. There are only so many times you can hear about how Larry MacPhail once nearly convinced Tom Yawkey to trade Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio.
Even I start to get a little stir-crazy from wintertime baseball leisure activities. For now, though, they are helping keep me sane. They provide respite from the dread that I can’t help but feel when I know I have to walk outside and cross the street to get groceries. In the middle of the city, there are always others about, and given the warnings from public health officials, it’s hard not to look at them as if they were foot-dragging zombies from a horror film.
In hopes of providing some inspiration to the baseball-starved, I thought I’d share just a few of those things in which I indulge when I’m using baseball to take a break from working on baseball:
• Audiobooks. I usually mix in a variety of topics in my audiobook diet, but for whatever reason, this winter has been nothing but baseball. I listen to these when I exercise, walk around the city, clean the apartment or make dinner. Apparently I spend a lot of time doing those things, because I’ve consumed 21 baseball books in this fashion over the past few months. It’ll be 22 when I finish a biography about Rogers Hornsby that I’m about two hours of listening time away from polishing off. There are a ton of excellent baseball audiobooks out there. One recommendation: “False Spring,” by Pat Jordan. It’s a great read with soaring prose from a great writer, but the audio version is read by Alan Robertson, the best in the business. Basically, if you see a baseball audiobook read by Alan Robertson, get it immediately.
• Old TV broadcasts. There are a lot of classic ballgames on YouTube. Some of these date back decades. In a way, I was a little disappointed in the slate of games that were rolled out to re-air for our faux Opening Day. They could have gone a little deeper into the archives for some teams. Most of the players in the games that were aired are still active. We’ll see them again, soon enough. (We hope.) But it’s a minor complaint. Just giving us baseball to watch in any form was a gift. Maybe as the days pass, we can air more old games and can tap a little bit more into the nostalgia that runs thick in the blood of longtime baseball fans. Anyway, a good starting point is the original broadcast of Game 7 of the 1971 World Series, featuring Roberto Clemente still at the peak of his powers.
In the weeklong series focusing on a different baseball theme each day, we asked our MLB reporters to tell us the stories of the best they ever saw — with only one rule: They had to be there to witness it in person.
• Old radio broadcasts. I provided this link in a column over the winter, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a repository of classic broadcasts from 1934 to 1973 that are now in the public domain. You can hear Harry Caray call a Cardinals game when he was still partnered with Jack Buck in 1968. You can listen to Willie Mays’ first game back in New York after he was traded to the Mets in 1972. You can hear the 1934 All-Star Game, the only surviving broadcast of a complete contest in which Babe Ruth played. You can hear the 1941 All-Star Game in Detroit, which Ted Williams won with a homer, a moment he always said was his finest in baseball.
A pro tip: Take this play-by-play log from Baseball-Reference.com for the 1934 All-Star Game. If you click on those fields in red for each plate appearance, a diagram comes up with the game situation, the batter and the names of the fielders arrayed across the diamond, along with the result of the plate appearance. When the at-bat is over, you can click “next,” and the following plate appearance comes up. As a companion to these old radio broadcasts, it’s like having a live gamecast for a game that was played before most of you were born.
• Simulation games. There are some baseball-related video games on the market that have awfully impressive production value and are very popular. Video gamers are pretty good at filling the gaps of their day, I suspect. Not to take anything away from those glossy games, but they have never interested me. What I do love are stat-based baseball simulations, from board games like Strat-O-Matic to computer versions like my current preferred game, Action! PC Baseball. You can play these games alone or you can square off against friends via the internet in an enviable display of social distancing.
I have gravitated toward the Action! PC game simply because it has every season ever played going back to the 19th century, puts out a yearly projection set and doubles as an exceptional database manager. There are other terrific options out there — the Strat-O-Matic PC version, Out of the Park Baseball, which has amazing general manager functions, and quite a few others. All of these games have rabid fan groups with which you can connect via social media.
There are practical uses for these games. Using Action! PC baseball, I maintain real-life rosters and tweak player ratings constantly as I learn new information about them. It has become a tool for managing the information I get about baseball and for putting my projections into a testing environment. Creating and managing the profile of a prospect like, say, Jo Adell is how I crystallize everything I’ve learned about that prospect. How should his arm be rated? How are his platoon splits? What is Casey Mize’s best offering? Just how good is Cristian Pache’s glove?
Having all of that at my fingertips allows for great opportunities to test theories, possible trades or lineup structures. And not for nothing, it’s just really fun to play a baseball game, giving one a whiff of ballpark vistas, the thinking-along-with-the-manager aspect of watching a game and even the sounds of the stadium. I can’t get enough of it.
Simmed baseball is also a great way to scratch a historical itch. Right now, I’ve got active replays going for every season that ends in a one — 1901, 1911, 2001, etc. When I’m thinking about Rogers Hornsby, for instance, I’ll play a Cardinals game from 1921. Several times each game, if I encounter a name I’m not familiar with or a number attached to a player that surprises me, I can disappear down a shallow rabbit hole of new research.
Thanks to the wonder of the SABR bio project, you can learn the life stories of thousands of players with a couple of clicks. Doing this often enough hammers home just how unique and precious every person’s life is but also how often even a life that contained a major league career can turn to sadness and tragedy.
As a baseball writer, the practical uses of this knowledge are obvious. However, even if you don’t want to write about the game but only want to argue about it with friends, these simulations are a great way to learn more about baseball than most people will ever know.
• Books. This one is pretty obvious, but if you have a Kindle or any kind of reading app on your phone or tablet, there are countless baseball books out there to fill your downtime during this period of seclusion. The variety and depth of baseball’s literature is unchallenged by other sports, and you can dip into that even at a moment when we can’t venture out to physical bookstores.
Since I consume so many baseball audiobooks, I tend to read about two non-baseball books to every one I read about hardball, but I still get through a few dozen each year. I also spend about an hour every day reading a digital book I generate each morning from new stories, features and analysis from around the internet. I send the stories to the Instapaper app, and once they are all in there, the app has a function to send those stories to Kindle. Voila! It’s a freshly made baseball book. I find this to be a more satisfying and less manic way to keep up with baseball writing than just clicking on social media links.
A great source for often esoteric baseball subjects is the Society for American Baseball Research, which has an extensive library of volumes produced by its members. Every conceivable subject is there — ballparks, the dead ball era, the Black Sox, you name it. The bottom line is that if you like to read and you love baseball, there are more books out there on the subject than you can possibly ever consume in one lifetime.
Sure, the baseball season is in limbo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have Power Rankings. How does your team stack up? Power Rankings
Look, I realize these things are temporary fixes. At a certain point, none of them will be a sufficient replacement for the real, tactile experience of actual games. You can’t re-create the authentic hum of a crowd between pitches, or the smell of grilled onions on the concourse, or the taste of a cold beer from an oversized plastic cup, or the crack of the bat, or the anticipation of a rally. As much as we can lose ourselves in the things that have already happened, there is nothing like the thrill that comes from finding out what is going to happen next.
For the next few weeks, as we live day by day trying to make sense of a world that seems unchanged and transmogrified all at once, we’ll have some rough moments. We will rue the absence of baseball and the solace it can provide during hard times. Hopefully we can turn those bad moments into jolts of hope for what it will mean when the games begin again: a return to normalcy.
Until then, more than almost anything else in our culture, we can fill the baseball void opened up by our new shut-in lifestyles with … baseball. A small comfort? Probably so. But for now, small comforts are all we’ve got.
Folks, this is a weird, surreal time for all of us. Before I wrote that sentence, I turned around in my chair to look out the window at Sox Park. It’s dreary and foggy, so the stadium looks like a faint shadow through the haze, which seems appropriate. I wish I were there, as I had planned to be. I wish thousands of others were there with me, along with Mike Matheny and Luis Robert and Alex Gordon and Tim Anderson and all the rest. Instead, it was the first day that meaningful baseball was lost.
Eventually, we will have the celebration that we were supposed to have on Thursday. We’ll get there. Until then, hang in there and be well.
Three little things
1. One of many baseball casualties of the outbreak right now is the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Like virtually all major museums, including the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the NLBM is currently closed to visitors. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues and a season-long celebration was planned to mark the centennial. Hopefully we still get most of that, but for now, here is a documentary about the centennial that is worth your time. Also, if you have a few crayons or colored pencils lying about, you can print out and doodle on this picture of Buck O’Neil. Fun for the kids, sure, but I hear coloring is not just for kids anymore.
2. More on the baseball diversion front: During my stay in New York during last fall’s American League Championship Series, on a rain day I trekked over to Coogan’s Bluff and the Morris-Jumel Mansion that has overlooked the grounds where the Polo Grounds once stood since well before the original incarnation of that ballpark was built. At the time, the mansion (which houses a museum about former resident George Washington) had an exhibition honoring the Polo Grounds, put on by collector and sports artist Neil Scherer. That exhibition closed a few weeks ago, but you can take a video tour of it on YouTube. Some really cool stuff in there.
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To give you a sense of where the museum itself is situated, check out this panoramic photo of the 1912 World Series between the Red Sox and Giants from the Hall of Fame’s digital collection. This would be 11 years before the original Yankee Stadium opened directly across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds. Old as that photo is, the resolution is remarkable. If you zoom in, you can see the Morris-Jumel Mansion looming on the bluff directly above the right edge of the grandstand. It’s still there; the ballpark is not. While you’re doing that, spend a few hours digging around in those digital archives at the Hall’s site. It’s an amazing collection, one that only scratches the surface of how many relics are actually housed in Cooperstown.
3. Last week, I laid out some possible paths for the 2020 baseball season once we hopefully get underway. Since then, news about related discussions has leaked that indicated most of those paths — save for a tournament-only paradigm if the regular season is wiped out — seem to be on the table, including the possibility of neutral-site postseason series. (That’s a coincidence; my column had nothing to do with it.) But there are two additional possibilities that have been floated that I considered, then dismissed. In both cases, it seemed to me unlikely that the players’ association would be open to them. However, the indications seem to be that both the players and the league office are intent on getting in as many games as possible. This is, of course, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.
One of those notions is the possibility of numerous doubleheaders, perhaps a couple per week. In the models I shared last week, even in the densest scenarios I didn’t think it likely that we would get more than a couple of doubleheaders per month. That makes my game-per-day scenarios a bit more realistic. In addition, there was an idea floated by agent Scott Boras about extending the season all the way through November, with a December postseason. This still strikes me as unlikely, but what it does suggest is that if the players, owners, the commissioner and the agents all want to play as many games as we can get, that’s what will happen. Great! Now we just need a new opening date.