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The state of baseball one year into the pandemic

COVID-19 has changed all of us, and baseball, in ways we cannot fully comprehend just yet

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Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

March 11, 2020 was a rare night time Spring Training Cubs game. While that game was going on, the National Basketball Association sent the tweet that would change everything:

I went back and looked at the game threads from that evening and it is stunning how we kind of knew COVID-19 was a thing, but really had no clue about the year that lay ahead of us. Sure, there was speculation in the preview thread that if parks were going to be empty Marquee Sports Network and Comcast would have to come to some sort of deal, but that didn’t prepare any of us for the bomb that Adam Silver was going to drop 30 minutes into an exhibition game against the Padres.

We covered it back then like everyone else. You can go back and look at Al’s articles posted a year ago today, March 12, 2020, as the story broke, first arguing that Spring Training should be cancelled and then following up with MLB’s announcement that Spring Training was suspended as rain fell in Arizona and cancelled that day’s Cubs game. But a year into the pandemic it would appear none of us knew the extent of what we were getting into — MLB’s original plan to delay the season “at least” two weeks was obviously wishful thinking.

It is worth pausing here on just how incredible it was that Adam Silver was the first mover here. Not the government, not a state, no, the Commissioner of the NBA looked at the information around him and the implications of a positive test from Rudy Gobert and shut it all down. Every other sports league followed. The Boston Marathon and the Olympics were both cancelled within days.

USA Today published a must-read piece Thursday on the timeline and implications of a decision that Silver made within minutes, but as I read that article it occurred to me that all of the necessary parts of it were laid down in the preceding months. By the time Gobert tested positive hotel lobbies were emptying and corporations were considering contingency plans to work from home.

In my own little corner of the universe I was tweeting about the Cubs and Padres game a couple of weeks after attending a friend’s wedding in Dallas. March is always a busy time for me, it’s the run up to the largest event of the year at my day job and the eve of baseball season. I had no idea that it’s even more difficult to undo an event you’ve been planning for six months than it is to just finish the project or that I was about to embark on 132 days of a life without baseball. I certainly had no idea we were all headed for 530,320 deaths, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a full calendar year of social distancing.

It seems almost impossible that a year later we’ve all adapted to this new pandemic reality. I have a tidy little collection of masks for those limited moments where we need to go shopping or to the post office. I barely even need the marks on the floor reminding us to stay six feet apart. And here I sit, on the same spot in my living room where I documented Chicago’s shutdown, the months that Wrigley Field became a food bank, a brilliant short film on the silent city and, eventually, the return of baseball.

We’ve all lost something, whether it was a job, a friend, a family member, the oblivious security with which we used to take the train downtown for work, or the simple joy of having dinner out after work. And yet, baseball continues, even if it’s only for a 60-game season clinging to whatever magic might remain in Mike Napoli’s gold chains.

Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini are now Padres, Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber are now Nationals, and Joc Pederson and Zach Davies are now Cubs. There are furious debates about the future of the Cubs’ beloved core of players and how long they will wear blue pinstripes at the corner of Clark and Addison. Rob Manfred is still doing everything in his power to tweak a game that probably doesn’t need tweaking and almost exactly a year after it was all shut down the city of Chicago has agreed that Wrigley Field can welcome 20 percent capacity crowds in 2021.

I feel like I’m operating at 20 percent capacity after one of the hardest years of my life but I also feel fortunate to still be healthy and employed on my couch. Some day in the future I will finally snag a vaccine appointment, and that will allow me to join the limited number of masked fans at one of only two baseball parks in America that has seen two pandemics. This spring I’ve already been lucky enough to forget it all for a few fleeting moments when Willson Contreras hits a no-doubt home run.

But I imagine those of us who have lived through this unique time will never truly get over this. There are no amount of home runs that will erase this experience. The last year has changed all of us, and baseball, in ways that we can’t even begin to comprehend just yet, even as we hold out hope for the beginning of the end of the pandemic this summer.