This was supposed to be Opening Day, with the Cardinals and Reds bringing in the new baseball year at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Jack Flaherty would have been on the mound for the visiting team, firing fastballs and sliders with his Gibson-like intensity in a forceful effort to tame the Reds’ revamped lineup.
Jump-On-You Jack was ready to go as the Cardinals’ first line of defense against the Reds and the bubbling optimism in Cincinnati. After a busy winter of adding to the roster, the Reds believed they’re capable of winning the NL Central in 2020.
And maybe they can. So why not take that theory on a test drive against Flaherty, who posted an 0.90 ERA in his final 11 starts of the 2019 regular season?
Just typing the name “Jack Flaherty” made me miss baseball more than I did several hours ago on a too-quiet Thursday morning … a morning on a day without baseball.
And man, we could use baseball right now.
It would be good for the soul, especially in passionate baseball towns like ours. The sport is more of a religion than a game — or at least a sacred tradition that runs deep through the decades, connecting the past with the present.
Baseball can be dull at times. The games are too long. The modern proliferation of strikeouts and unnecessary instant-replay reviews deprive us of lively action … which in turn saps our energy and eats at our patience. And as much as I like the analytics and metrics that influence how the game is played — well, everybody has their limits. And if I wanted to sit in an advanced math class I prefer to do my yawning in a classroom instead of a ballpark.
I digress …
Because I miss baseball, all of it — including the flaws, self-inflicted damage, and puzzling obsession with minor matters.
Even in its dullest form, baseball is stable and steady and reassuring. At this time of national crisis, I’d even say that baseball’s tedium would be a welcome presence. A relief. Boredom — when measured against panic over Covid-19 — is a beautiful thing.
Baseball’s methodical pace is a constant through the orderly process of playing a 162-game schedule. And right now that daily grind — the cadence of pitches and swings and misses and doubles and double-play grounders and innings and saves — would be especially reassuring to a restless population.
Let’s argue over Mike Shildt’s lineup decisions instead of taking sides in the usual political fights, OK? Coronavirus updates are necessary, and I look at the numbers every day — a hellish box score of death and dread.
Baseball is usually there to provide stability through turbulent times. So when it isn’t there — our universe isn’t quite right.
Throughout its history baseball has always played a valuable role. Not just in providing entertainment through those and summer days and nights at the ballpark with cold beer, peanuts, hot dogs.
It’s not just the wonderful bonding that comes with shared experience — the enjoyment of nine innings of conversation and camaraderie with friends and family or the amiable strangers sitting next to you at the ballpark.
It’s not just the distraction that baseball provides as a brief escape from our real-life stress and problems.
Baseball has also been a calming and important presence for shut-ins. The elderly. Folks of any group who may be feeling down, or dealing with health issues, or the death of a loved one, or the weight of financial distress.
From the mid-February opening of spring training to the start of the 162-game odyssey that takes us from the final days of March through the end of October, we could count on baseball being there. A peaceful companion at your side, even in the darkest and loneliest times.
Baseball has always been there to help Americans stay level during adversity or heal after horrific tragedies. It’s the game, yes. And it’s also the soothing voices of broadcast legends such as Jack Buck, who becomes a dear friend — an extended family member — through the magic of radio. And baseball is a safe haven. A lasting foundation. A symbol of our way of life.
Baseball has survived multiple World Wars, the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, the Great Depression, assassinations, riots, protests, the 1989 San Francisco Bay Area earthquake and the shocking, numbing events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Baseball has endured through its own scandals (the Black Sox), poor leadership, and too many stupid and selfish labor disputes.
But baseball doesn’t go away … it might disappear from view for a while … but it always comes back. And in a small way, it brings us back too. As outdated as baseball may seem in our hyperactive culture, this grand game conveys a sense of normalcy. It confirms the resilience and strength of our nation.
I’ve always loved this quote from Willie “Pops” Stargell, the late Hall of Fame first baseman who led the Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Series titles in the 1970s.
“To me, baseball has always been a reflection of life,” Pops said. “Like life, it adjusts. It survives everything.”
Baseball isn’t with us right now. But it’s out there, beyond the horizon, and will return in time. Jack Flaherty will be back, glaring. The timeless and ageless duo will be on stage: Adam Wainwright will take the signs from catcher Yadier Molina, and throw a cruel curveball, and life as we know it is familiar again. We’ll be fussing over lineups, and grumping over slumps, and waiting for Dylan Carlson.
We’ll do it again. And by the time baseball returns in 2020, we’ll appreciate it more than ever. When baseball is back, it means that we are back too.
Thanks for reading …