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Let’s play ball, however strange it is

Major League Baseball is floating the idea of starting the 2020 season, which has been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak, sometime in May with all 30 teams in Arizona.

Sloan Park, the Cubs’ spring ballpark in Mesa, would be among the fields pressed into service if MLB can start play next month with every team in Arizona.
Sloan Park, the Cubs’ spring ballpark in Mesa, would be among the fields pressed into service if MLB can start play next month with every team in Arizona.
John Antonoff/Sun-Times

It was almost exactly a quarter-century ago that I wrote my first column for the Sun-Times: April 2, 1995.

It was a weird one.

My little son, my father-in-law and I went to a spring-training game between the White Sox and Red Sox at old Ed Smith Field in Sarasota, Florida. The weird part was, there were no major-leaguers playing.

The baseball strike was raging, had been for more than a half-year. The 1994 World Series had been canceled.

And on that beautiful spring day, there was no solution in sight.

I wrote that no batters could reach the outfield wall, that we were studying somebody named Pookie Bernstine, that the beer was still nice and cold. But it was strange. Not right. Just . . . not right.

Now Major League Baseball is floating the idea of starting the 2020 season, which has been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak, sometime in May with all 30 teams in Arizona.

Talk about weird.

Games would be played before no fans in spring-training stadiums and at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field. Players would sit six feet apart in the stands. There would be no mound visits, and plate umpires would stand way behind the catchers. Old-buzzard managers and antique clubhouse guys, we’ll assume, would wear masks, latex gloves and maybe full-body plastic suits.

Crazy.

The thing is, it would be baseball. With real major-leaguers playing.

How could anyone be against that?

Baseball is such a powerful symbol in America — of springtime, rebirth, stability and a deep psychological connection to our past — that the major leagues played right on through World Wars I and II. Not to play would have been to further traumatize the souls of the men and women fighting overseas.

Indeed, on Jan. 15, 1942, five weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis about that exact thing.

‘‘I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,’’ Roosevelt wrote.

President Donald Trump has weighed in on pro sports, too, saying, for instance, that he fully expects the NFL season to start on time in September. But expectations aren’t facts. And Trump previously said he anticipated all of us being jammed joyously into churches on Easter, four days from now. As if.

It’s possible May is way too soon to bring people together in numbers large enough and close enough to each other to play baseball. The virus still is raging in April, remember. Indeed, as I write this, Illinois has just recorded its largest one-day death toll — 73 — since the virus struck.

Will the players be immune in a month or so? Will they be so closely guarded that nobody in the entire Arizona baseball family will bring the virus into the ballpark?

After all, there’s no way some double plays won’t get a player closer to a middle infielder than safe social distancing. How about pitchers going to their mouth? All that spitting, sliding, sweating?

And to play in June? And then in July, August and September in the desert? Whoa, baby. Ever been to Phoenix in the summer? I have. I remember my shoes sticking to the melting asphalt in a parking lot as though glued there.

So day games are out, and you’d have to cram schedules for 30 teams into night games at the 10 practice stadiums and Chase Field.

MLB and the players’ union already are saying they could play seven-inning doubleheaders at night. Extra innings? Call it a tie and move on.

You see, there’s an answer for every problem if both sides are adaptable.

Everybody sequestered like monks in off-limits hotels scattered around the valley? Sure. Why not?

It could be done. Broadcasts on TV. Players miked for the fans’ enjoyment. Crowd noise piped in. Scratching and gum-chewing still allowed.

Fights? Maybe you’d have to don gloves and surgical masks before throwing down.

But don’t forget that MLB is a $10 billion enterprise. You don’t jam in the plug on that kind of spigot unless you absolutely have to.

Maybe none of this will happen. Instant coronavirus tests, available to all, could change much. A COVID-19 vaccine would solve all.

But bring it on, I say.

Isn’t playing ball what baseball players live to do?