Welcome to the 30th edition of Around the Horn, a recurring op-ed with a satirical slant that riffs on whatever’s recently noteworthy in baseball. Think of it as a stripped-down Last Week Tonight or The Daily Show in a column format with recurring segments about the good, bad, and ugly in the world of America’s pastime.
Baseball is now officially, not just theoretically, back. For how long, however, remains to be seen (more on this later), but we were still granted the Opening Day (weekend?) we have long desired and needed during this pandemic.
In was, to be sure, a return like no other.
Our Main Story
Despite the many months of waiting and anticipation, baseball’s return was not met with pageantry, pomp, and circumstance. Fake crowd noise was pumped through stadiums, and there seemed to be a general lack of enthusiasm across the board. Much of this can be attributed to the absence of fans who normally would have flooded every MLB ballpark in America if given the opportunity this summer.
Fans were replaced in the stands with cardboard cutouts of themselves, further enhancing the somewhat artificial nature of the return of a sport we all love. It is still quite confounding to think that this season will not only be comprised of just 60 games but that it will actually count in the annals of history.
However, the prevailing theme that colored baseball’s return was far more human and universal than just a love of the game.
Every member of all four teams playing on MLB’s Opening Day took a knee to protest racial inequality prior to the playing of the national anthem on Thursday. https://t.co/CCKRT0slwW
— Timothy Aeppel (@TimAeppel) July 24, 2020
The fact is, most of us spent weeks, and in some cases, months sequestered in our homes trying to choke up in a two-strike count against this novel coronavirus outbreak, and while there were various forms of reopening, the most notable public gatherings have been the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Much of this occurred prior to the return of baseball, but to say it set the stage would be putting it lightly. Civil unrest. A global pandemic wreaking havoc on society as we know it. Imagine how foolish MLB would have been to attempt any recreation of a normal Opening Day amidst the most abnormal circumstances in recent memory.
Instead, baseball wisely met that reality head-on.
— MLB (@MLB) July 21, 2020
For those who like to stand on a proverbial soapbox and shout at ballplayers to “stick to sports,” it might be a good idea to remember that playing pro baseball is a privilege, whereas exercising the First Amendment is a right.
There was an outpouring of support. There was a volley of criticism. Look, whether you agree with the kneeling or not is beside the point. For baseball to do nothing during this time would be the greatest injustice of all.
I’ve always found it curious that some take such offense to the concept of kneeling during a national anthem. My initial reaction when this gesture first became a thing was similar to seeing a flag at half-mast — a symbol of respect, mourning, and distress. The lives of Black Americans lost to social injustice certainly qualifies as something worthy of respect, mourning, and distress.
Essentially, one’s choice to kneel can be seen as an acknowledgment of a nation’s wounds still in need of healing — a sign of respect and a plea embodied in one — as opposed to outright disrespect, or somehow, some kind of slight towards veterans.
Nonetheless, perhaps the most signature moment occurred in Los Angeles with a newly minted 365 million dollar man.
Mookie Betts kneeling through the National Anthem, flanked by Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy. pic.twitter.com/J7igtwdEFs
— Molly Knight (@molly_knight) July 24, 2020
Mookie Betts kneeling was notable for multiple reasons. First, all the Dodgers and Giants players took a knee during a moment of silence before the anthem. However, while the rest of the Dodgers stood during the anthem itself, only Betts remained kneeling with teammates Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy resting their hands on his shoulders in solidarity.
Previously, Betts stated four years ago that he would never kneel during the national anthem out of respect for his father, Willie, a Vietnam War veteran. That being said, Betts now believes he “wasn’t educated” and that “kneeling has nothing to do with those who served our country.”
Betts isn’t sure if he will kneel again, but I wonder if those most vocal in their criticism of his choice have forgotten that the Dodgers are the organization that broke the color barrier by giving Jackie Robinson a chance to play. In some ways, one could argue Betts’ kneeling is a tribute to Robinson and an acknowledgment that the fight for social justice remains as relevant as ever.
There is a misconception that standing during the national anthem has been a fixture since sporting events became a public affair in this country. The fact is, it hasn’t been. While it’s true that the first documented occasion of the Star-Spangled Banner being played before a baseball game took place as early as opening day, 1862, baseball was played for decades before the national anthem served as an intro to every game. In fact, the tradition really began on September 5, 1918, during Game 1 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.
By that time, 100,000 American troops had died in World War I, which had begun just over a year prior. The government announced that it would have to start drafting MLB players to support the war effort, and the day before, a bomb exploded in Chicago, killing four people and injuring many more. It was a somber day, to say the least. Suddenly, the U.S. Navy Band began to play the Star-Spangled Banner during the seventh-inning stretch.
At that moment, Fred Thomas, a Red Sox infielder who the Navy had granted a furlough to play in the game, turned to the U.S. flag and gave it a military salute. Other players stood and placed their hands on their hearts while the crowd began to sing. The moment of reverence was a welcome respite, and the song was played during each of the remaining games of the series until Game 6, when it was played before the start of the game for the first time to honor wounded veterans who received free tickets and were in attendance at the time.
Other teams would play the song during holidays and special occasions until the Star-Spangled Banner became the official national anthem in 1931. After World War II, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden mandated the anthem be played at each football game.
And the rest is history, as they say.
The question still persists though — is history where this tradition should remain moving forward? Should the national anthem be observed before every major sporting event, or is it better suited for special occasions and holidays?
If the prevailing opinion is that the Star-Spangled Banner should continue to be a fixture in pro sports before every game, and I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t, then let’s not forget that its place in baseball was born out of a sense of unity during a time of great turmoil in our nation’s history. We were literally at war in 1918.
Today, it’s not a world war that binds us together, but the fight for equality.
So whether we stand or kneel, so long as we’re doing it together, then we’re honoring the spirit of why the song was ever played before “Play ball!” was uttered in the first place. And if you’re still not convinced, then tell me this isn’t what both baseball and America are all about:
Cavan Biggio says he didn’t show up expecting to kneel today. His locker is next to Anthony Alford, who wanted to kneel, but Biggio recognized Alford was hesitant to draw attention as an up-and-down player
He asked Alford: “If I did it, would you feel more comfortable doing it?”
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) July 25, 2020
Out of the Park
A Look Beyond the Box Scores for the Best in Baseball This Week
The Toronto Blue Jays have been trying to figure out where to couch surf this year after the Canadian government prohibited them from playing their home games in Toronto at the Rogers Centre. They thought they could crash at PNC Park with the Pirates for a while, but just when they figured they could start getting comfortable, the Pennsylvania state government decided to turn the tide.
Luckily, the Blue Jays found a friendly neighbor willing to take them in for a few months.
No, not that one.
BREAKING: The Blue Jays will be playing home games at Buffalo's Sahlen Field this season.https://t.co/EIRb4CC5Ok
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 24, 2020
That’s right, the Blue Jays will partner with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons to ensure the Jays have a place to stay this summer. It will take a few weeks to retrofit the minor league park to accommodate the locker room social distancing protocols MLB has put in place, but Buffalo baseball fans have to be thrilled to have the Blue Jays in town.
If only they could pay to see them play.
Where Baseball Got Caught Looking
As wonderful as it is to have baseball back, the novel coronavirus has zero intention of letting things go on as planned.
Only in 2020 would this be the Opening Day first pitch.
Dr. Fauci throwing out the first pitch is all of 2020 in one moment pic.twitter.com/WiXmhx4OFt
— Jason Salvatore (@MJPMJP2012) July 23, 2020
If only that was the worst of it. It took exactly one day for baseball to see one if its brightest stars test positive for COVID-19.
MLB’s return-to-play plan faces its biggest test yet as the Nationals’ Juan Soto tests positive for COVID-19: https://t.co/AT0LIRfB77
— MLB Daily Dish (@mlbdailydish) July 23, 2020
As far back as July 8, there were 72 positive cases made public, according to a story published by USA Today. ESPN reported that the number had risen to 99 just a few days ago.
— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) July 26, 2020
Of course, the bigger problem is the fact that four Marlins players tested positive for COVID-19 the morning before the team took the field against the Philadelphia Phillies. I imagine the scene outside the Marlins locker room that morning as league officials collected test results looked something like this:
One has to ask whether any members who have the virus came into contact with any members of the Phillies organization. We should know the answer in a few days, but this situation is indicative of just how difficult it will be to pull off a baseball season amid a pandemic.
Two infectious disease experts said the positive results were a clear sign of an outbreak, so it begs the question of why the team played later that day and risked further exposure. Worse yet, the Marlins’ home opener has been canceled as the team and league seek to contain the exposure, and so has the Yankees game against Philadelphia.
If the Miami Marlins are to continue their season, it will be with a minimum of 10 players from their alternate camp site. Few with big league experience, many with none. They will also need alternate coaches. Some with no big league coaching experience as well.
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) July 27, 2020
Consider the 60-game season officially on notice. At least we’re not seeing players end up on ventilators, and they’re only losing a week or two of time to all this madness. No one has thus far succumbed to any serious inj-
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) July 26, 2020
Gimme something good, Bob. Seriously, anything. We need it.
Ángel Hernández, Everyone.
Now Baseball is officially back. pic.twitter.com/LzsXfVRnTA
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 23, 2020
OK, no. Can we try that again, please?
2,646 days since Daniel Bard pitched in a MLB game.
Today, he picked up his first win since May 29, 2012. pic.twitter.com/nlkM7BoJlE
— MLB (@MLB) July 25, 2020
Daniel Bard last pitched in the Major Legues in 2013.
Since then, he bounced around the minors and dealt with the yips, before serving as a mental skills coach for the last two years.
Today, he mad his return to the Majors and picked up the win! ❤️
— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) July 25, 2020
Much better. Wow! Now that’s a lesson in perseverance and the power of fortitude. Hard to imagine ending this column with anything cooler than that.
That’s the ballgame for this week! Thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you all soon!
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)