Kat D. Williams is a professor of American history at Marshall University. She is board president of the International Women’s Baseball Center and the author of Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez: The Improbable Life of a Cuban American Baseball Star (Nebraska, 2020).
Like many around the world, I have spent much of this spring searching for some normal, usual something that feels solid and not like shifting sand under my feet. Most days, I am not very successful. I tried walks around the neighborhood, video games, and Zoom sessions with friends, but nothing helped to ease the anxiety of quarantine. Eventually I turned to an old standby comfort: sports.
But even live sports are gone. I surfed through ESPN and Fox Sports—on one was golf from 1999 and on the other football from 2003. CBS and NBC had hockey from 2018 and basketball from 2007. I finally landed on a replay of the 1975 World Series game seven. Settling in to watch I felt strangely comforted and weirdly engaged. I chuckled when, in the top of ninth inning, Boston walked Pete Rose to get to Joe Morgan, and I declared my undying love for Joe when he hit that little blooper to put the Reds ahead. In the bottom of the ninth I relaxed a little more with each out Will McEnaney logged and even muttered, “Yeah!” and gave a little fist pump when Yastrzemski flied out to end the game. For that brief time, I was okay, relieved, myself.
After the game I started to wonder why. Was it because I got to see my beloved Reds win the World Series again? Did my COVID stress recede while watching that 45-year-old baseball game because it is familiar, because it reminds me of a happier time in the Reds’ history? Or is it simply that it’s baseball? Any baseball? Admittedly I still get satisfaction out of watching the long face of Boston’s Carlton Fisk as my Reds celebrated their world championship. But it is more than that too. As I scroll through other “encore” baseball games I realize that nearly every one brings a memory, a familiar feeling. The Dodgers are playing, and I remember the time Steve Yeager was hit in the throat with a piece of bat and how that changed the protection catchers wore. The Phillies are on—yeah, well, they stole Pete Rose from us, so, who cares? The Diamondbacks are playing the Rockies and I am reminded how my late mother loved Randy Johnson. I don’t know why, and she had no connection to Arizona, she just did. So, I did too. The scars of 9/11 were still visible in the wreckage of the Twin Towers as the 2001 World Series got underway, but it got underway. And, while the Yankees did not win the Series that year, all of us (I suspect even some Red Sox fans) cheered for them because they were New York to us. They were the visible, baseball manifestation of the city that had suffered so much. In 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing, it was Big Papi standing at Fenway that helped to heal that city and the nation from yet another tragedy.
On and on and on. Each game, every team has significance for me personally, but they also provide a thread that ties me and a nation of baseball fans together. In times that are hard we often hold tight to that thread and turn to baseball for solace. The number of times this country has relied on baseball to help recover are too numerous to mention here, but what happens when we are in the middle of a national crisis and there isn’t any baseball? Where do we turn? How do we stabilize ourselves without the game we have relied on for so long? Our country, indeed the world, is under attack from an invisible enemy and we are left to defend ourselves in isolation and without one of our oldest standbys. There are no Little League or Major League games. Baseball for All has cancelled this summer’s National Tournament and Minor League parks sit empty.
Now more than ever, we need baseball. But is it the actual game we need? Or is it the connection, the pride, and the community we desperately crave in these difficult times? As I watched the Reds win the 1975 World Series for the umpteenth time, I had an urge to call my mom and dad because I knew they would be as excited as I was. There was an overwhelming need to share that victory with someone, to connect with other fans, and especially to the ones who made me a Reds fan. The urge to call passed quickly. What remained though was a familiar feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. That sense of “we are all in this together” that baseball gives us.
I long for the smell of freshly mowed grass, the sound of a ball smacking into a fielder’s glove, the crowd noise and the taste of an overpriced hot dog and stale beer. But I am also grateful I was forced by its absence to reassess the game I love and its true meaning in my life. Was it the balls and strikes, the hits and the homeruns that made baseball an anchor in difficult times? Do the players, managers, umpires, and hot dog vendors really give us the comfort we need to survive a tragedy? Those things can’t be true. If they are, how will we ever survive the pandemic of 2020 without them?
The answer is clear. Although I am a lifelong baseball fan, it took this time, when ball parks are closed and the bats are silent, for me to fully understand it. Yes, baseball is still here providing solace, a place to grieve, heal, and honor, because the real strength of baseball lies in us, the community it fosters. We are present even when the games are not.
Soon enough baseball will start up again and, with live games to watch, I’ll likely go back to being frustrated with the pitching staff, the manager, the umpire, and even the announcers. I’ll call my dad to celebrate a Reds win and commiserate with him when they blow another lead. It is my hope, though, that amid the excitement of baseball’s return, I won’t completely forget what I learned during this strange baseball season of 2020.