Navigating Normalcy and Baseball Mania in a Global Pandemic

(I wrote this piece in December 2020, then forgot about it. At one point, pre-vaccines and in the depths of the pandemic, I had planned on taking a page from the book of Zisk and publishing an irreverent fanzine about baseball. It never happened. Today, I realized I’d completed this piece, and reckoned it shouldn’t just sit in Google Docs & should instead serve as the proverbial time capsule. Perhaps you too had these spikes of mania during 2020, and can relate in some manner.)

I’ve found as I’ve grown older that my baseball obsessions, and my desire to follow the sport closely, actually ramp up in the offseason, as opposed to, you know, when the games themselves are actually happening. The absence of a maelstrom of 10-15 games to track every single day, along with the lack of quantitative confusion that rapidly-accumulating baseball statistics bring, probably provides me with the mental space and calm to actually process all the things about the game that I enjoy so much. When the only thing going on is “the hot stove”, I’ve found, is the period in which I tend to read about, watch and contemplate the world of baseball the most.

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, predictably brought my lifelong baseball obsession to a raging, full-on boil – far more than I’d expected it to. It was my implicit reaction to something confounding and potentially deadly. Despite my better intentions, this baseball mania instantly displaced some of my more lofty, I-need-to-do-more-of-that passions, like watching arty films and reading more fiction – all of the aspirational, extracurricular things one might say they were going to do if presented with an unplanned stint at home. It probably had some connection to being teased to the very start point of the 2020 MLB season, through several weeks of pitchers & catchers, Spring Training games on the radio and so on – and then having it all cruelly yanked away by the fickle finger of fate, and by a deadly, once-in-a-hundred-years virus, sloppily and indifferently wished away and then bungled by the US federal government. More likely, it was an innate reversion on my part to something simple and uncomplicated; to a sport that has been a huge part of my life as long as I’ve been sentient enough to comprehend it, and that offers some level of comfort and normalcy even in the best of times.

The early pandemic, which of course rages on as I type this, begat a ramping-up of a number of strange baseball-related behaviors I’d only dabbled in over the years. I instantly switched out our cable TV subscription to ensure that we’d get the MLB Network – confusingly, at a time when no baseball at all was being broadcast. No matter. I hooked myself onto a series of documentary specials the network had built up over the years called “Baseball’s Seasons”, in which I’d revisit the pennant races of 1971, or 1965, or 1984, or 1997, and so on. In every hour, a champion. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. A circular narrative, unchanged every year, in which the rhythms of baseball produced a set of playoff teams, a World Series champion, two MVPs, two Cy Young Award winners, and two Rookies of the Year. Brainless comfort food in a world gone mad, or something like that.

MLB Network’s documentaries are the best thing about it, as far as I’m concerned. Their “MLB Network Presents” specials may tend toward the maudlin at times, but I truly watched some real corkers during lockdown, such as “The Cobra at Twilight” (Dave Parker, the 1979 “We Are Family” Pirates, and the man’s subsequent battle with Parkinson’s) and “Joy in Wrigleyville” (what it was like to be a lifelong Cubs fan when they won the 2016 Series). In April, I was laid off from my tech job, along with over 20% of the entire staff, as part of a relatively unnecessary Covid-19 panic by my company – and yes, of course that’s what I’d say. These two MLB Network shows were necessary salves at the end of long days spent massaging my resume, firing off emails, and waiting on hold to talk to California’s unemployment helpline.

In March, when lockdown truly was lockdown (our Mayor proclaimed for a few weeks that we couldn’t travel beyond a 5-mile radius of our homes), I rapidly added to a moderately-sized baseball card collection and was truly 11 years old again – a transparent return-to-the-womb coping mechanism if ever there was one. You can read about that process elsewhere in the magazine. Then, fearing that some of the more independent yet vital baseball-adjacent media organizations might be struggling to stay alive, I joined Fangraphs on a premium membership; plunked down for Society for American Baseball Research membership; and quickly hoovered up every back issue of Zisk fanzine that I didn’t already own. That last move was likely the linchpin to starting my own baseball-themed print fanzine, so who’s to say the pandemic didn’t have a few positive knock-on effects, right?

At one point, I not only had those many documentaries to watch at night, I would routinely alternate or complement them with some of the better recent baseball books, some of which are reviewed in these pages, rather than with the more highbrow fiction or nonfiction I’d intended to read. I belatedly discovered the books of Jason Turbow, then rapidly devoured them all. They made for excellent diversions as I hunted for work and read daily about the callous stupidity and grift coming from Washington, and the confounding sickness that waxed, waned and waxed again all over the world.

Then there was the great KBO enthusiasm bubble. I don’t know if you personally took part in this pandemic-induced tulipmania, yet when ESPN negotiated their 11th-hour contract to broadcast a season’s worth of Korean Baseball Organization’s games in May, I leapt right in and watched a few days’ worth of Tivo’ed games between teams with strange names like the NC Dinos and the Doosan Bears. It was part and parcel of missing the game, sure, but I also think there were many of us who revelled in an abstract schadenfreude. See, United States of Dumbasses, this is what you get when you take care of your citizenry and listen to scientists. You get live baseball, albeit without fans in the stands, and minus those Korean dance troupes that perform synchronized cheerleading moves. Baseball nonetheless!

My KBO fandom certainly didn’t last long, a casualty less of its uneven play and ballplayers whom I’d not heard of than of games that were already nearly a day old before I had the time or wherewithal to watch them. It was quite something to see when I did, however; especially watching Karl Ravetch and Eduardo Perez up late at night, trying to call games that were happening in another part of the world over Zoom, with them also each being in separate locales. Smooth and professional it was not, yet it was also the sort of dissociative spectacle I felt we all deserved at that point.

On that: as MLB season-resumption talks sputtered, then gathered steam, then sputtered again, there was a sense that I shared with more than a few armchair pundits that “we probably don’t deserve a baseball season”. I believe the popular phrase was, “Professional sports are the reward we get for having a functional society”. Well, we don’t have the latter even as I write this, despite the results of the 2020 presidential election, but we got the former many, many months ago anyway. I feigned total indifference when the MLB first returned, but I know I was pretty stoked to have it back, and I began watching Giants games when and where I could.

The 2020 season itself, as you know, was over and done with in a blur. I sat in my car listening to the radio in front of CVS on the last day of the regular season, as the Giants squandered their longshot chance to sneak into the expanded playoffs. In those two months they’d been better than they had any right to be, and none of it meant much of anything, given the small sample size. As it was happening, in August and September, I reverted to my aforementioned disengagement with the sport of baseball – “disengagement” relative to where I’d been in the previous months, not relative to the average human being. In other words, I worked in other pursuits. I got a new job. I stopped watching all those documentaries. I treated baseball as I do in any other season – as something to read about in the paper every morning, and which I’ll occasionally watch in full on TV or listen to on the radio. 

Then came the World Series, and I had to chide myself for not being all-in, given the fact that this was probably the single best Dodgers team since the mid-1970s, and an exciting Rays team built by mad scientists and quantum physicists with spare parts, duct tape and baling wire. I therefore decided to make the effort to watch every game, and indeed, I’m quite glad I did. As I settled in to watch Game 1 of a World Series featuring California and Florida teams playing the entire series in Texas, I had a profound sense of delight to actually see and hear fans in the stands – something I hadn’t even known was going to happen until I tuned in. They looked appropriately distanced, they were having loads of fun, and best of all, I heard their (real) cheers when someone popped a dinger or was struck out by one of the Rays and Dodgers’ interchangeable flamethrowers. It all felt very normal. It felt, at best, like it might be portending the end of this nightmare. To this day, I’ve yet to read any “I got Covid at Globe Life Field” stories, and believe me, I don’t want to read them.

Now it’s December 2020 as I write, and it’s clear that my pandemic baseball mania has lessened to such an extent that I’ve returned to a quite quote-unquote normal level of fandom. Keep in mind that all appearances to the contrary, I did not entirely ignore my family, nor my job search, not household improvements, nor some of my other passionately-engaged frivolous endeavors during this period. As I write this, I’m still happily married, my teenage son remains sane, I’m gainfully employed and we’ve even made a few minor updates to the home. I published a music fanzine (Dynamite Hemorrhage #8), created twice-monthly music podcasts and somehow found the time to go running 3x/week. Here I am writing this baseball fanzine, too. So totally, totally normal.

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