Once, I titled a book “Why Time Begins on Opening Day.” For others, time may seem to begin when gardens bloom, ski slopes open or a Kennedy Center opera season launches. Elk season, no doubt, lifts some hearts, though not those of elks.
But I was somewhat serious. The start of the baseball season, which would have been Thursday for the world champion Washington Nationals and every other team, means that for 60% of the year there will be major league baseball almost every day. The weight of that - or rather the buoyancy of it - is no small gift.
I’ve said that baseball is a great support to people who have emotional voids, gaps, difficulties. That is to say: all of us. Those parts of us that don’t function well. Those parts of us that are sad or depressed - not every day - can really use baseball. It isn’t just the child in a wheelchair or the shut-in senior citizen listening to the radio that needs the game. Part of us, part of everyone, is a baseball fan who needs the game at that level.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, when life was suddenly more serious more of the time, there was also more need for it to be fun at least some of the time. I wrote then that, as soon as possible, my family went to a college-football game. We needed it - and deserved it. Not the way a New York fireman or a medic at the Pentagon deserved it. But enough.
Now, when life is suddenly more serious more of the time, when hundreds of millions of us feel a bit akin to shut-ins, baseball - our reliable daily respite available when needed - is taken away from us.
In fact, every form of communal fun, release and camaraderie is now snatched from us indefinitely, whether it is any kind of sports event - live or on TV - or a concert or just an evening with a group of friends at a restaurant.
Our reality, much of it on television and the internet, constantly chronicles new virus cases and deaths, complete with charts of how we compare to every country on earth. Live television focuses on the pandemic, politics, lost jobs, a plunging economy and stocks. In a few weeks, our emotions may have been assaulted, our fears awakened, from more angles than ever in my life, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates of American deaths that could surpass the combat deaths in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.
As a 72-year-old male, part of a virus-prone demographic, I know the numbers are still stacked very heavily in my favor. In fact, if covid-19 never existed, my chances of dying within a year - of some other cause - are about 10 times greater than from this pandemic. (Yeah, I looked it up.) Yet I spend plenty of every day fretting - working on my heart attack? - about people or problems tied to the novel coronavirus.
This must be a real knee-slapper to the virus.
Perhaps what is most endangered now is neither our lives, nor our jobs, nor our savings - though all are in peril - but our internal lives. Who will we be, how will we see the world and our countrymen, on the other side of covid-19? Amid such isolation, will we keep intact all of our best qualities - our capacity for enthusiasm, love, creativity and our currently trampled innocent joy?
For now, we’re stripped of many of our customary forms of community, connection, enthusiasm and stress-reducing distraction. But we’re also robbed of an often-overlooked element of how humans stay sane and functional. We are excellent at inventing routinized excuses for a smile, for cheers, for celebrations of arbitrary things that we decide to enjoy. For example, who needs birthday parties or anniversaries or dozens of our other made-up excuses to be happy?
On that psychological scale, sports are one of the best deals in town. At times, identifying with a favorite team or player that’s in the dumpster can be painful. But for most of us, most of the time, sports are: “Heads, I win. Tails, meh.”
Among the many things denied to us these days, let’s not pretend that sports are a small one. Just because games are “meaningless” doesn’t mean that their subtraction represents no loss in value to us. “No Sports Again Today” costs many of us plenty, though there’s no scale on which to measure it.
That’s why, until normal daily life returns to us, and sports with it, you will see no apology in this column for discussing anything regarding sports - whether present, future or in our rich, shared past. Wherever we can find it, we need to maintain whatever gives us a sense of a continuing community conversation. Even a defiant, silly insistence on cheerful memories and imagined futures are linkages between us that we should defend. That certainly includes sports.
So, welcome to Opening Day, even though it won’t be the usual kind - more a makeshift mishmash, long on last October’s memories. Neither will we enjoy the usual skip in the heartbeat on the day the Masters should have started. And if you miss March Madness right this minute, that only means your sense of connection to a jubilant, shocking, month-long experience remains intact.
All of these things will return in time, along with more than 99% of us. For now, everything is just as bleak as it seems with even darker skies straight ahead. However, the future, not so far away, should be just as bright with anticipation as ever. But we’ll have to fight together, like the teams we most admire, to get there.