Baseball better late than never

Big league baseball is back. Sort of.

As they say, it’s a whole new ball game.

To begin, the season is four months late opening. By now the players and teams are usually in mid-season form. But they’re not. It’s like beginning a game after a 17-week rain delay.

Instead of a 162-game regular season, it’s going to last only 60 games before the playoffs start.

A few teams opened the season Thursday of last week, and the rest started on Friday. TV channels that had waited and waited to begin their coverage did so with a vengeance. You could find a game on the tube almost anytime from noon till midnight, and for baseball fans it was like a dive into a cool pool after wandering months in the parched desert.

But it’s tough for traditionalists.

There’s a lot more interleague play slated for the 60-game stretch. And the designated hitter is now universal, instead of operative in the American League only. Pitchers don’t get to bat anywhere. I’m trying to feel normal about it, and cut it some slack, but it’s hard. 

Because of concerns about the pandemic, the vast major league stadiums are empty during the games. Attempts to mitigate the emptiness are woefully inadequate, but what’re ya gonna do? 

Some teams put lifesize photo cutouts of fans in the first few rows of seats behind home plate and along the baselines. The fake news fans seem to be enjoying themselves, regardless of what’s happening on the field. 

I don’t know if they’re there to help the players feel more comfortable or to make TV coverage seem more realistic. Probably both. But it’s spooky to see the artificial faces smiling no matter whether the home team is on a roll or going down the drain. Looks like a North Korean crowd when the Dear Leader speaks. 

Maybe the cutouts could have happy faces on one side and glum looks on the other, with someone at the master control to rotate them simultaneously depending on what’s happening on the field.

And some televised coverage inserts taped cheering when something good happens — a home run, a double play, etc. The cheers start suddenly, last a few seconds and then end just as suddenly. It’s comical. I anticipate the sound engineers will develop more sophisticated and realistic effects as the season goes on.

They should work in a few leather-lunged obnoxious fan recordings occasionally. The guys that berate and ridicule players throughout the game. That would seem more natural.

And the fake fans don’t rise as one to catch a foul ball when it’s hit to their particular spot in the stands, and then wave frantically to the TV camera so they can ask their friends at home later if they saw them on TV. The balls land all by themselves and bounce leisurely down the steps. No one-handed catches without spilling a drop of beer. It’s just not the same.

Another change, an admirable one, is how Major League Baseball is supporting and encouraging racial fairness, in actions as well as lip service. Pre-game ceremonies in the games I watched included symbolic recognition of current national demonstrations like Black Lives Matter.

Some players, Black and white, knelt before or during the national anthem to emphasize the drive for equality, and other players beside them put their hands on the kneelers’ shoulders.

Racial equality in baseball was a long time coming.

It’s unlikely that vestiges of racism within it don’t exist here and there — that’s true everywhere. But the game has come a long way from the racism of Georgia’s Ty Cobb and Marshalltown’s Cap Anson a century and more ago. The Negro Baseball Hall of Fame in Kansas City singles out Anson as particularly instrumental in preventing the integration of the major leagues for a number of years.

It’s gratifying to see professional sports move to the front as an instrument for racial justice. 

Much of the awkwardness of this abbreviated MLB season can be forgiven on that account.

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