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What I Learned – MLB schedule offers hope not seen in 2020

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If I had asked myself why I liked baseball prior to this year, I never had posed the question seriously. I’d asked sarcastically, perhaps jokingly, but never earnestly: I liked baseball, as I had for most of my conscious life, because I simply did. I liked some features more than others, of course, and the exact terms of the appreciation shifted as I moved from childhood to adulthood and from fan to writer, but generally, on the whole, baseball made me happy more often than it did the opposite. I liked baseball; I did not think too much about why.And then, of course, there was no baseball. There wasn’t much of anything. So I tried to find a substitute—one that I might like in the same way that I liked Major League Baseball, at least temporarily—and found it surprisingly tricky.When American professional sports shut down in mid-March, I turned to the same stopgaps as any unmoored fan. I watched old games. I searched for highlight reels. I did sports documentaries, sports podcasts, sports-ish programming. (Hello, competitive marble racing.) For a while, I woke up early for baseball in Taiwan and stayed up late for baseball in Korea. I watched ESPN with a grim curiosity, around-the-clock sports coverage in a world with broken clocks and minimal sports, and was distressed to find myself oddly soothed by Stephen A. Smith, pressing on in his trademark cadence as if nothing had changed.This ebbed and flowed—there were weeks where it felt like an absurd luxury to consider anything related to sports—but it all faced in the same direction: I missed MLB. And yet all the reasonable solutions to that problem felt wrong.Of course, this sensation was everywhere in March and April, when every day required relitigating the lines of daily existence. I missed baseball then like I missed lingering at a restaurant and getting on a plane and buying groceries without wondering how to thoroughly disinfect them. I missed baseball like I missed life. But this shifted as the weeks wore on. By June, I was struck not by the fact that baseball was absent but by the sort of hole it had left behind. Sure, I missed MLB. But I did not know what, precisely, it was that I missed about it.If I missed the simple act of watching a game, well, there were old games for that—both the classics that were selected to fill time on television and the meaningless late July ones I could choose at random and pull up on MLB TV. But both felt forced; the ability to pause and look up a final box score made it hard to feel like there was much point to watching. If I missed the unpredictability of live sports, there were the live competitive events now packaged as sports—cornhole, sign-spinning, the aforementioned marble races. These could be fun or, at least, intriguing. But I realized that they soured with anything more than a small dose. If one marble race was delightful, a reminder that the world could still be fun and surprising, ten marble races were just marbles rolling on sand.Kohjiro Kinno/Sports IllustratedAnd so it went with everything else that seemed like a potentially decent substitute for MLB. It all felt like a mismatch. To check in on the simulated seasons on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs was to enjoy a hypothetical window into what this summer could have been, but it did not feel like baseball. (It did feel like a spreadsheet—a fine component of my baseball experience in normal times, but far, far less enjoyable with no actual baseball behind it.) To get overly absorbed in bad television was to find the comfort of low-stakes drama and intricate ongoing storylines, but it did not feel like baseball. (90 Day Fiancé, even at its most absurd, doesn’t have anything to match “José Altuve has a secret unfinished tattoo.”) To do anything entirely separate—bake bread, read the news, get briefly obsessed with bird-watching or watercolor painting or TikTok—was to find release in other ways, some better than others, but, of course, none of it felt like baseball. I could break out specific aspects of what I missed most about MLB: the reliable everydayness, the gentle rhythms of its background noise, the capacity for surprise, the, well, baseball. But I could not find anything that held all of these in its stead.After a few weeks, of course, there was baseball: Taiwan’s CPBL, Korea’s KBO and, later, Japan’s NPB. Each of these offered its own sort of joy; I found myself amazed and slightly guilty that I hadn’t watched more of them in past years. By no fault of their own, however, these could feel prickly: To watch them was to be hit by the enormous differences in national outlook when it came to bringing back MLB. The baseball itself—happening either in the middle of the night or in the unconscionably early hours of the morning—was wonderful, both achingly familiar and completely fresh. But I could not quite untangle it from its context.The baseball that starts today cannot be untangled from its context, either. This is Opening Day, but Opening Day in a pandemic is both logistically and ethically dicey. While MLB has done enormous work to minimize the risk, they cannot eliminate it, and navigating that dynamic will ask consistent effort from all involved. If it’s generally unreasonable to expect sports to be an escape from anything, it’s especially so right now, with perpetual reminders of the fact that this is neither a typical season nor a typical society.This was the context in which I watched this week’s preseason games in preparation for today. And this was the context in which I understood just what it is that I like most about baseball: I like the opportunity to watch a collection of small surprises, whether they turn out to be marvelous or dull or silly or weird or enraging, at a pace that offers room to think, and to trust that there will be another such collection tomorrow. I like keeping time with baseball.Here is the collection of surprises for today. May there be more tomorrow. 

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