Lyons

Gene Lyons





So we were having dinner when my wife said, "It still feels weird that you're not going into the TV room to watch baseball later on. Kind of sad, really."

Now, supposedly, I've gotten a reprieve. Commissioner Rob Manfred has ordained that Major League Baseball is coming back in late July: a 60-game schedule followed by the regular playoff schedule and the World Series.

A lot of wives would have mixed feelings about that, but not Diane. Baseball has always been a big part of our lives together. I sometimes say I realized I needed to marry her when she asked me to drive us from Charlottesville to Baltimore for the 1966 World Series. Her childhood friend Brooks Robinson, the Orioles' brilliant third baseman, had given her tickets.

I also like to tell the story of overhearing Diane's response to a neighbor who asked indignantly why she allowed me to watch ballgames on TV. Her own husband was forbidden, even when his hometown team was in the playoffs. The implication was that my wife was letting down termagants everywhere.

(A naughty word, I know, but bear with me.)

"Well, if I told him he couldn't, he'd do it anyway," she began. "He doesn't try to tell me what I can watch."

Which was really all that needed to be said. Even so, she continued.

"My daddy was a baseball coach, so I like it too. Sometimes we watch games together. Do I ever get tired of it? Sure. But compared to some of things men do ... When he's watching baseball, he's home, he's sober and he's not out in a titty bar stuffing money into some girl's bra."

This last, I'm sure, was purely for shock value. I don't get drunk, and find such joints depressing. But Diane thinks husbands and wives supervising each other's every waking hour is symptomatic of why there are so many bitter divorces. Having spent her childhood riding cross-country in school buses filled with wisecracking teenaged ballplayers, she likes guys the way they are.

But I digress. Given that my life has revolved around baseball pretty much since I was an 8-year-old racing upstairs to tell my father about Bobby Thomson's miraculous ninth-inning home run off Ralph Branca -- the "shot heard 'round the world," so called -- to win the National League pennant in 1951, I guess I should be excited about the game's return.

Instead, I find the prospect mildly depressing. First, because I doubt Major League Baseball can actually pull it off during the COVID-19 pandemic, and second because I don't think they should even try. It's too dangerous for everybody involved.

During the seemingly endless bickering between the team owners and the players union that preceded Manfred's announcement, I lost patience with both sides. Normally, I don't read stories about the business of baseball for the same reason I don't follow the stock market. It ain't none of me. But don't these characters understand that they owe a lot more to the game than the game owes to them?

Outspoken Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer got it exactly right: "It's absolute death for this industry to keep acting as it has been. Both sides. We're driving the bus straight off a cliff," he posted on Twitter. "How is this good for anyone involved?

"COVID-19 already presented a lose lose lose situation and we've somehow found a way to make it worse."

Strictly from the athletes' point of view, how eager would you be to fly into Phoenix, Houston or Miami right now to quarantine in a hotel and play ball in an empty stadium? Already several players, including Washington Nationals fine first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, have indicated they'll sit the season out.

I believe I'd opt out, too. True, few healthy young professional athletes are in danger of dying from COVID-19. However, there are increasing indications of long-lasting nerve and lung damage from the disease, either of which could end a player's career. They also have families to consider. Zimmerman's statement referenced his newborn son and his elderly mother afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Things appear likely to get worse short-term.

Truthfully, I think everybody would be better off if we just gave up on the 2020 season in professional sports across the board. MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, all of it. I'd include NCAA college football, too. Just forget it. The dangers are too great, and the rewards too small. Start again when there's a reliable vaccine.

But yeah, if they're playing, I'm watching. I do fear that baseball will televise very badly in an empty stadium -- every popup and long fly ball exposing acres of empty seats. Even home run balls rolling around in the bleachers in tomblike silence will only emphasize what has been lost.

Better to heed that ancient slogan redolent of baseball's endless springtime rejuvenation: "Wait till next year."

(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.)

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