A Summer Without Baseball?

Opening day of Major League Baseball season was supposed to have been March 26, 2020. Instead, the world was turned upside down by a strange, new virus, which best anyone can tell, originated from bats and jumped to humans in a wet market in Wuhan, China. No single individual’s fault really, just the collective malfeasance of man. Over the course of a couple of months it has all but brought human society to a halt. Toilet paper, meat, eggs, and hand sanitizer have disappeared from every store you can find. No school, no work, no meetings, no baseball. Opening day has been officially postponed to May but there is a good chance it won’t happen at all in the summer of 2020. Who saw that coming, really?

               A summer without baseball? We’ve had summers with truncated seasons before. But, they’ve always been the result of player strikes. This is the first time the game has been taken from us by something out of our control. Granted, it’s a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Amid global economic collapse, sickness, and death, baseball is but a small sacrifice. Yet, still, baseball is a touchstone of summer. It means a lot to many of us.

               Having no baseball to watch, I’ve been thinking a lot about past seasons. As a lifelong Braves fan I’ve had plenty of great seasons I could recall—the 14 straight Division Championships, 5 National League pennants during the 1990’s, and the 1995 World Series win. That’s something I grew up never really believing I’d live to see. But its not that ’95 World Championship or any of the other glory the Braves found in those golden seasons of the ‘90’s that I’ve been thinking about.

No, I grew up in an era in which the Braves were darn near the worst team in baseball. But, like so many others, that didn’t matter to me. I loved them in spite of and perhaps because of it. I was a kid from Georgia and they were my team. The team we all watched on WTBS, the Super Station, almost every night.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1978 Braves season. It wasn’t very remarkable. They finished the season with a record of 69-93, last in the N.L. West. But, on July 1, 1978 my grandparents drove me about 40 miles North of their home in Moreland, Georgia to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Back before they named stadiums after the corporation willing to dole out the biggest check to have their name splattered across them. That night, I would see my first professional baseball game. I was 7 years old. A  young catcher-turned first baseman named Dale Murphy was in his first full season in the big leagues and was beginning to draw some attention with his bat. I picked him out that year as my favorite player and he has been that ever since.

I got to see Chief Noc-A-Homa dance upon the mound before the game. The Braves were dressed in their home uniforms, a uniform that would be unrecognizable to Braves fans of later generations. Home whites with red trim, red pinstripes, “Braves” scrawled across the front in that classic cursive script, royal blue stirrup socks over white sanitary hose, and that old cap, white in front bearing the red lower case “a”, with a blue bill and back. Many of the player had long, bushy hair and beards, both of which drew my grandmother’s ire. I can somehow remember a number of those players besides Murph. There was Phil Niekro, Bob Horner, Gary Matthews, Rowland Office, Biff Pocoroba, Rick Camp, Gene Garber, Jerry Royster, Glenn Hubbard, Jeff Burroughs, and Bruce Benedict.

The Braves lost the game 15-4. Murph had 4 plate appearances. One hit, two walks, and a strikeout. But, its not the loss I remember, nor do I remember Dale Murphy’s numbers from that night. In all honesty, I had to look those numbers up on-line from the Baseball Enyclopedia.

What I remember about that game is my grandparents taking, not just me, but my 91 year old Great Grandmother to the game. We parked in the largest parking lot I had ever seen across the street from Fulton County Stadium. I was in awe of the modern cathedral rising over us as we pushed my Great Grandmother up the ramp amid the buzz of the typically sparse crowd in attendance at Braves games in those days.

Even though the stadium was half empty, we sat in those orange bleachers encircling the upper deck of the old stadium. Tickets were $4.00 a piece. My grandparents bought me a Fan magazine souvenir program complete with scorecard for 75 cents. It had a photo of Gary Matthews in full swing on the cover. We bought hot dogs and Cokes and my grandfather ate a whole bag of roasted peanuts all by himself, sucking the salt off the shells first.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The grass was more green and the chalk lines more white than they had seemed on TV. We saw the ball put in play before the sound of the bat’s crack reached our ears. The crowd roared and gasped with every fly ball hit, expecting it to keep sailing over the fence. More often than not, it would just die there in the outfield. Best of all, there below me, way below me, were the heroes I watched on TV every night. Live, in the flesh.

Prior to 2020, we lost pieces of baseball seasons. The greatest loss of games to date occurred in 1981, when a player strike, suspended play in June, forcing the cancellation of 713 total games—38% of the schedule. But, in August, baseball resumed.

Baseball continued in the face of World War II. Even with the loss of 500 regular players, including some of the game’s top stars like Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, and Stan Musial, to military service. Even amid that challenge, a 1942 poll showed that 67% of Americans wanted baseball to continue during the war. The game was a balm to many. Later, it helped soothe the nation amid later crises, like 9/11.

But, this is different. Walk out your door and look around, listen. The world has changed. Its quieter. Some things are still the same. The birds are singing. The landscape is greening up as spring awakens the grass and trees. Yet, something seems off. It manifests itself in many ways, this oddness we are living within at the moment. People are out of work. Kids can’t go to school. Hospitals are over-run. Stores have empty shelves. Restaurants only serve take-out. The streets are all but empty. We are forced to avoid one another. Its spring and there is no baseball.

Its not the end of the world, this absence of the game. More importantly, some people are mourning over the absence of those they love. But, somewhere there is a kid looking forward to his first major league ball game. It may not happen this year. It is rumored we may see baseball back in June or July. But, there are no guarantees. There’s no way to know what path life will take in the year of coronavirus. But, in time, it will happen.

Somehow, out of all the social distancing, out of all the hand washing, out of our isolation from one another, and out of the absence of baseball, it will happen. That kid will enter some towering cathedral named after some mega-corporation, look down upon grass of the deepest green he has ever seen and watch his heroes take the field. He will see one of them swing and watch the ball in the air as, a second or two later, the crack of wood on ball reaches his ears. He will try to pray the ball over the fence. And hopefully, he’ll get to do it with someone he loves.


©2020 Lenny Wells

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