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On the healing power of baseball

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These are almost paranormal times, and when baseball comes back, it’ll help bring us all back

US President George W. Bush throws the ceremonial Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

For me, the hardest thing about the COVID-19 pandemic has been the loss of normalcy. Tragedy and catastrophe aren’t exactly new — even in my lifetime I’ve seen a world-changing terror attack and one of the worst financial crises in history. Those events caused massive shifts in culture and society, but there were normal things that kept you anchored: schools were open, baseball was played. With COVID-19, almost everything has ground to a halt, and a lot of us are sitting around feeling like this is an out-of-body experience.

We don’t know how long we’ll be expected to practice social distancing and self-isolation. We don’t know how many people have been tested or how many people are asymptomatic carriers. I tend to think this whole thing would be easier to deal with if we had any hard deadlines at all — the CDC’s recommendation on gatherings would expire on May 1, or MLB would return for sure on June 1.

I’ve written quite a bit this week about times when baseball has been interrupted. The through line in all cases has been baseball’s ability to return us to normalcy. Babe Ruth’s ascent to mythical status pulled the game through a pandemic, war and scandal, and record-setting offensive numbers and a Yankees dynasty made us all forget the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995.

Today I want to talk about baseball’s most recent interruption, and the one I actually remember. In the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, I think people felt a lot of the same things we’re feeling now. For the first time in most of our lives, we wondered how safe we were in our day to day lives, and realized how quickly catastrophe can change our approach and outlook. I’m not going to talk about the geopolitical divides around the world in the leadup to the attack, nor the policies enacted in the aftermath, I’m going to talk about how baseball made us all feel a little more normal.

MLB cancelled games for a full week, with most of the conversation around perspective and the relative silliness of men in pyjamas chasing a ball at time like this. I wasn’t in New York, and I was seven years old, all that I knew about the disruption to normal life was that the grown ups were suddenly much more serious, and my parents did their best to explain to me what was going on.

But when baseball came back...

You really don’t need to have much understanding on recent American history to know how much Mike Piazza’s home run meant to the city of New York and the country as a whole. A ball carrying into the Shea Stadium seats couldn’t extinguish the fires still smouldering in Lower Manhatten, but it felt like baseball was back. And if baseball was back, maybe everything else could come back too.

Of course, probably the defining moment of the 2001 MLB season came just a few weeks later, and a little farther north, in Game Three of the World Series:

“Don’t bounce it, they’ll boo you”.

If the 2001 World Series was played in a completely context-neutral way, it would be one of the best Fall Classics we’ve ever seen. Two of the best pitchers of their generation squaring off against the team that had dominated the sport for a half decade. The Yankees winning all three home games, followed days later by one of the most famous endings to a playoff series in the history of team sports.

Adding in the context makes this Series near-mythic. America was changing in ways we were struggling to understand, and even today perhaps have not fully reckoned with. Through all of that we had baseball, and for a few hours a day, the nation felt normal again.

We don’t know who the Mike Piazza of this story will be. We don’t know what moment will be our First Pitch moment. We’re sitting on our couches going stir crazy, wondering how our world is going to change, as we flatten the curve of COVID-19. One thing we can be sure of is that we’ll have baseball, and like it’s done time and time again, baseball will help us all feel just a little more normal.