It’s been just about a year since American life, which for many of us means baseball, began changing. COVID-19, then known simply as the Wuhan Virus, began to be perceived as the threat it quickly became.
For real baseball fans, once the winter wrangling, trades and rumors wind down, attention turns to Florida and Arizona and the advent of Spring Training. Like many of the similarly addicted, I have tried over the years to take in a few spring training games before the regular season kicks off around the first of April. We head south to see our favorite teams while dreaming that “this year might be our year.”
As a Chicago White Sox fan since early childhood, I used to take my kids to Sarasota in the spring to see the Southsiders prepare for what usually turned out to be another disappointing season. They had played in Florida every spring for 44 years until team owner Jerry Reinsdorf moved them to Arizona in 1998. It was in Sarasota’s Al Lopez Field that we saw basketball superstar Michael Jordan — after deciding he wanted to play baseball — get his first hit as a White Sox, and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas begin his development into a true superstar.
Spring training games played in friendly little ball parks allow baseball fanatics young and old to see their heroes up close, meet many of them and get autographed balls they’d never have a chance to get once the regular season begins. My kids did all of that in Sarasota while watching our favorite team beat rivals like the Yankees, who would leave them in the dust once the regular season began.
Our Florida expedition ended when the Sox decamped to a new venue in Arizona, a move that upset the traditionalist in me at the time, but which I later came to accept and even enjoy. I didn’t take my kids there that first year, though, coming home to inform my nine-year-old son that we had a choice. Angry as I was about the move, we could go to Arizona or we could hop in the family car, skip Spring Training and head north to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Showing great judgment, he looked me in the eye and said “let’s go to Cooperstown.”
Eventually and even once the kids were grown and no longer part of the trip, I began travelling most springs to Arizona often with my younger brother, a Milwaukee Brewer fan. To see his team and mine battle it out last year was no exception, but we didn’t get to see as many games as usual. On Feb. 29 as the Sox lost to the Texas Rangers, we were informed that the rest of the scheduled games were being cancelled because of the virus.
We travelled home as we got news of further seismic changes. The 2020 season, we learned, might not take place at all, although it was eventually shortened and played in either empty stadiums or before “crowds” of cardboard cutouts. It was weird, but at least it gave those of us craving normality something we could hang on to as the nation or parts of it shut down almost everything.
This year we are being promised steps back to normality. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to camps in Arizona and Florida within a few weeks and Baseball Commissioner Bob Manfred has signaled that spring training games will begin on or around Feb. 28 … unless they don’t. Team owners and the players union both want a full season this year even if it means playing once again to fake crowds or in non-traditional venues.
It appears that this year’s spring season will be played without live fans, but teams are coming up with various schemes to allow at least some fans to attend regular season games beginning on April 1. By then, millions of Americans will have been vaccinated and it’s at least possible that something approaching herd immunity will protect the peaceful crowds of baseball fans anxious to see their favorite teams begin a real season.
Until that happens, we will not have returned to “normalcy.” One can only hope that a year has been long enough to defeat or at least bring the virus that disrupted the baseball world a year ago to heel.
If not, I may have to make another pilgrimage to Cooperstown.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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