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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The rituals of baseball amid COVID-19

This image provided by Fox Sports shows a

This image provided by Fox Sports shows a screen shot from video showing a test of the virtual crowds at Chase Field in Phoenix, in early July 2020. Fox Sports has revealed that it will include computer-generated fans beginning with their three Major League Baseball games on July 25. Credit: AP

Baseball’s back.

It’s a nice phrase. A phrase that elicits easy smiles, a phrase that conjures memories of glory and heartbreak and lazy summer days, a phrase anticipated by so many people year after emotionally invested year. 

Baseball’s back.

And it is back. But back as what? Familiar players are wearing familiar uniforms and playing games on familiar fields of dreams again, at a time when all of us are craving escapism and a return to some semblance of normality. But this baseball isn’t escapism and it isn’t normal, and I don’t say that in a pejorative sense but simply to acknowledge reality.

Baseball is back as a mirror of what everyone is going through, navigating the minefield of the coronavirus, trying to mind the boundaries and pitfalls, another of the many petri dishes — like workplaces and schools and transportation systems and stores — that comprise our lives. It’s all a big experiment for which none of us know the ending.

Each team is in its own bubble, a rather expansive circle compared to our own family bubbles. But these players go home, and they make road trips where they travel and lodge in places where others travel and lodge, and they mix on the field with other players from other teams in other bubbles that face similar puncture possibilities.

If you believe in omens and augurs, the opening was not auspicious. Washington Nationals phenom Juan Soto — the very symbol of youth and excellence — tested positive for the virus just hours before the first game against the Yankees, one of dozens of players who have tested positive so far. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s infectious disease guru, wildly skewed the first pitch. And apocalyptic rain and lightning stopped the game after six innings. But better days lie ahead. Surely.

That’s always been part of the promise of baseball. We’ll get ’em next time. Wait ’til next year. The sense of hope is one of baseball’s alluring traditions.

More than any other sport, baseball is bound by its rituals. There is a sameness to it, an eternal aspect that has flowed over decades. Its rules change at a glacial pace, allowing statistics to be compared over time. It is comforting in its constancy.

Now we have new rules for relief pitchers, a designated hitter in the National League, a runner automatically placed on second base in extra innings, and expanded playoffs after a drastically shortened season. All understandable, perhaps, but shocking for baseball. 

But not as shocking as empty stadiums. Take me out with the crowd, as the song goes. The TV lords find empty seats so jarring that ESPN is using fake crowd noise in its broadcasts. Cheers for home-team homers, sure, but here’s a guess it won’t include boos in Yankee Stadium when Giancarlo Stanton strikes out with runners on. 

Fox Sports is going further by putting virtual fans in the seats. Network officials boast they can create a crowd dominated by home-team colors, adjust for weather (jackets in colder weather), and thin the crowd in the ninth inning of blowouts. Fox says the idea is to give viewers a feeling of normalcy when nothing is normal, missing its own contribution to nothing being normal. It’s certainly no escape from the altered reality all around us.

There will be moments when the crack of the bat or the umpire’s emphatic strike-three call transports us to the place we’d all like to go. But more often than not, I suspect, baseball is back will mean baseball is coping as best it can, not at all normal, but hopefully normal enough for the times in which we live.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.