More than 50 years after The Beatles had their first platinum record, singer-songwriter Paul McCartney was interviewed by NPR and said something dumbfounding about writing songs: “I don’t know how to do this. You’d think I do, but it’s not one of these things you ever really know how to do.”
Arguably the greatest and most prodigious songwriter of all time said he didn’t know how to write songs. And he meant it.
Writing about baseball, or anything else, really isn’t any different. For me, every new piece starts out with having no choice but to confront the idea that I might be all out of ideas. The last couple weeks have had a quiet but tireless twist, though. It’s not that I didn’t quite know what to write after a series on what team projections miss. It’s that I’ve never had to wrap my mind around a moment like now, a real life horror movie centered on an extreme pandemic that’s shuttered businesses and industries of all size and all the lives that operate them—whether it’s the favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant or billion dollar sports leagues. What’s your word of choice for all of this? Unprecedented? Uncertain? Trying? One doesn’t seem to feel any better than the others.
Instead of starting out with whether or not I’m out of ideas, I’ve been facing something else at the start of each piece. It kind of crawls over my skin like an ant and leaves me feeling a little skeeved out and shivering over the phantom feeling of another little critter. What do you write about when the thing that provides the ideas isn’t there to observe?
So far the answer has felt a lot like grieving, in all its stages. I hope that by walking through some of that grief with you we both realize something at the other end of the tunnel, dim as it may be in between now and then.
Baseball’s actually going to start, right? It doesn’t matter that no one has a beat on when baseball might start. It’s going to start! Sure, the game is played outdoors and is weather-dependent, unlike other sports that have been interrupted like hockey and basketball. Yeah, the Olympics have been delayed a year. Yes, I know they start in late July. Yeah, I know that’s after baseball’s All-Star Break more than half way through the middle of the season. What’s your point? Football has still had free agency. The NFL has said they’re still going to have their draft on schedule, too, and that happens in April! It’s not all that important that it’ll happen remotely.
Are you seriously suggesting baseball might not happen? We’re not there yet. Why would we worry about that kind of thing now, even as we’ve recently been recommended to stay in lockdown-like settings for the next month with a “then we’ll see what happens” tone? What’s waiting until May, taking a couple weeks to finish up Spring Training, and then getting this thing going by Memorial Day weekend? Have you considered the myriad topics we’ll have in a shortened season with entirely new sample sizes to consider?
You know the real kick in the pants about this delay? We were supposed to be toward the end of the first couple weeks of the regular season right now. We’d for sure have seen some amazing things. We’d for sure have seen some things that only happen at the end of March or early April, like, say, pulling your ace starter after he cruised through five-plus innings on only 68 pitches. There’d be so many things to Go Deep on.
Oh, by the way, we’re missing a season of peak Mike Trout. And Jacob deGrom. And countless others. There are breakouts waiting to happen that may never get the opportunity, thanks to the weird way time and luck work together. Imagine what it’ll be like without this year’s Ketel Marte type of breakout. And are you aware of how this is all rippling through the baseball world in general? Travis Sherer provided thoughts here. And then MLB came to terms with the MLBPA that drastically impact the draft, how many players can be taken, and how much money they’ll make at the start of their careers (which could have a huge impact on what they make later on)—all under the semi-guise of a response to the pandemic. The changes lurch toward minor league contraction for which the league has expressed desire, primarily as the means of being able to then finally pay remaining minor leaguers more. Less baseball is begetting even less baseball.
What’s that, you say? Neutral sites in warmer climates could get games started sooner, and let the season go longer? No fans, no problem. We’ll still be able to watch on TV, right? There would be 29 players on rosters for the first month of the season, so playing time will be weird. But at least more guys will have a shot, which is a relief after hearing how the draft’s been slashed. A shot is all a guy might need in a wonky, shortened season to suddenly have some staying power. The same thing goes for teams who would be fringe contenders. What if they’re on the verge of making the playoffs as we push to whatever the new October is? There’s a chance for so much opportunity. It really doesn’t sound that bad.
As someone on the East Coast, I usually track the majority of my year through baseball season. February: Pitchers and catchers report. Life feels like it thaws a little as velo inches up. March and April: Spring training and Opening Day. Chilly ballpark visits nearly convince me it’s still some weeks earlier, but the standings assure me otherwise. May and June: Mentally, it might as well be summer. Schools are winding down. The sun comes out to play much more and it seems a little easier to smile. July: a trip somewhere, probably to a new national park. I set my lineups up as best as I can before I leave; I pause and recollect through the all-star break. August: The dog days arrive. The bugs have been as relentless as a 1:00 game that ends at 5:30. September: School has started again and at least one playoff race has become irresistibly strange. October: On its way out the door, baseball holds open the door to let crisp air in. We get a new champion and retreat to our windows and wait for Spring again.
Right now it looks like almost none of that will happen, even though all sports leagues are refraining from saying any such thing until they absolutely must.
And so I’m back to asking: What is there to read and write about when the thing that gives you the stuff to read and write about is gone? What thoughts take its place and how are those hours spent? How far from the ground should you get when the thing that provided so much gravity has left the atmosphere?
We tend to find ways to fill our time. Hopefully it doesn’t involve mindless scrolling. Maybe you put your phone in a drawer and forget about it every once in a while, and maybe some startling and interesting new thought comes up. Maybe you find other interests or books or hobbies.
Back when I was doing my student teaching, I was concerned about having established certain routines or habits in my classes that wouldn’t align with my cooperating teacher’s when they took over after I left. A couple weeks before that point, I asked, “Is there anything you want me to start doing so they’re used to it when you’re back in the room?”
My cooperating teacher half shrugged and, as casually as possible, said, “No. They’re kids. They’ll adapt. It’s what they do.”
I often think of that moment, for better or worse. That’s what people do, generally, regardless of age. Now is no exception. Odds are we’ll get lost in our own desk chairs or couches wondering how in the world we’ll be ok in weeks or months, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid coming back to Right Now. Just because it’s heavy doesn’t mean it can’t also bring solace.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)
This is a nice piece, Tim.
There have been instances where I have felt hopeful about the plan to play fan-less games in the Phoenix area starting in July, but then there are all the uncertainties and questions about what would happen if a player or employee at the park tested positive for COVID-19 and I resign myself to the notion that the 2020 season may never get off the ground. That is when the despair sets in for this hardcore baseball fan. But I try to keep a broader perspective that the health of all needs to take precedence over the game so many of us love. It is quite a balancing act.