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OC Register: Hoornstra: Giving thanks for baseball in 2020

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It’s been a strange year. I became a father in February. The seasons changed without sports to tell me which seasons were changing. Then in July, I wrote the most morbid baseball season preview paragraph in the history of baseball season preview paragraphs:

This season will not be normal, and not merely because it’s so short. COVID-19 is thought to attack blood vessels, not hamstrings or rotator cuffs. We can’t be certain how much time any individual player will need to recover from their bout with the virus. We don’t know how well they’ll recover. Unfortunately, we can’t even know if they’ll recover. Any day between now and Sept. 27 could be the tipping point for something catastrophic – a death, a team-wide outbreak – that renders the season unplayable.

My son and I have come to enjoy the quiet moments standing on our front porch, watching cars driving up and down the street. A couple of months ago we spotted the first purple-and-gold Lakers flag sprouting from a car window. The first Dodgers flag followed. A familiar season had arrived.

There are a lot of good Yogi Berra quotes, but I think my favorite is “you can observe a lot by watching.” After months of pandemic-induced weirdness, seeing the Dodgers and Lakers flags signaled a return to normalcy more than covering a baseball game in an empty stadium ever could. The flags lent a voice to the voiceless, the fans who couldn’t attend a game in person but cared about a Dodgers or Lakers championship just the same. It was good to hear from them again.

Considering how bleak things looked as spring turned to summer, Thanksgiving came early this year. The end to the Dodgers’ longest championship drought since the franchise left Brooklyn wasn’t the only reason to give thanks. For the owner of every car with a nylon shroud flapping in the autumn wind, it was surely the best.

Objectively speaking, there are a million reasons for baseball fans to feel thankful today. A wise man once said – I’m paraphrasing – that one lucky owner is handed a piece of metal at the end of every season. One team was bound to win the World Series, and this year it happened to be the Dodgers, right?

Not so in 2020. No team was bound to win the World Series this year. Far from it.

“I feel they were lucky,” said Gil Fried, a professor of Sport Management at the University of New Haven’s Pompea College of Business, “but there’s a Jewish saying –  מזל – which means luck in Hebrew. Luck is being in the right place at the right time with the right learning to know what to do. It’s a Jewish expression, but it basically means while you can have luck, you can create the atmosphere where luck can actually be productive and result in what you really want to accomplish. They were doing all the work in the background.”

The baseball season lasted 13 weeks and five days from the first out to the last. Each week brought a fresh reminder of how precarious an experiment it was.

One Sunday in July, the Miami Marlins reportedly learned their starting pitcher and two other players had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. They chose to play their scheduled game in Philadelphia anyway. The Marlins weren’t cleared to play for another eight days as a consequence; the Phillies weren’t cleared for another seven.

An outbreak in the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse meant they did not play a game from July 29 to Aug. 15. A portion of the team spent nearly a week quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel. The resulting cancellations and postponements forced the Cardinals to play 53 games in 44 days to end the season.

No major league players returned a positive test for 58 consecutive days until the streak was broken on Oct. 27. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner learned he was the unlucky soul in the middle of Game 6 of the World Series, then was removed from the game on national television – an appropriately surreal finish to a surreal season.

Yet none of these were a death blow. The Cardinals and Marlins qualified for the playoffs. The Dodgers won Game 6, their trophy in hand not a moment too soon. Just this week, Turner was seen standing side-by-side with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, handing out turkeys in a drive-by giveaway at the Dream Center. The precise time of year was never more apparent.

These blessings will do little to console some of baseball’s most invested participants. The pandemic left hundreds of people within the industry out of work, from senior scouts to junior front-office assistants to minor league players and coaches and broadcasters. The most famous player to spend the year involuntarily unemployed, Yasiel Puig, appeared to have a contract with the Atlanta Braves in July. Then he tested positive for COVID-19.

The number of future jobs in baseball lost to the pandemic is impossible to know.

“I think the entire sports management education field is on this island right now,” Fried said. “The reason is, what happened to all the internships? We don’t have them anymore. A lot of those have evaporated.”

We can’t pretend to find the blessings therein. If they exist, they chose the clever disguise of economic turmoil within a multi-billion dollar industry. Perhaps a baseball season that lasted 13 weeks and five days spared more jobs than a year without baseball altogether. I don’t know. I know that preparations are being made for more baseball in 2021, with or without fans in attendance, and that wasn’t always a given.

The best baseball prophet for our time is not a Yogi, but a Rajah: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball,” Rogers Hornsby famously said. “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” There’s more hope than despair out that window now, and that’s a reason to give thanks.

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