KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fraught as it is while we remain engulfed in a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people and is surging locally, another adventure in reopening began Wednesday, the official reporting date for Major League Baseball’s “summer camps.”
At least for the moment, it’s a milestone in a bizarre time marked both by the great pause from the COVID-19 coronavirus and the great cause of the widespread pursuit of social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The lasting ripples of each of those things in the world of sports remains to be seen. But here’s a hunch about both aspects … particularly the abiding power of athlete empowerment that has resonated the last few weeks.
The Royals will start formal workouts Friday at Kauffman Stadium, where the theater of the absurd will feature protocols for distancing and hygiene that even seek to suppress one of baseball’s most enduring — albeit not endearing — traditions: Per MLB, “Spitting is prohibited (including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco) at all times in Club facilities (including on the field).”
But even deprived of time-honored elements of the game, such as arguing and, you know, fans in the stands and the aforementioned absence of expectorations, we have great expectations for this experiment, don’t we?
Or maybe it’s more like a great need … for the diversions and sense of community that comes with our games.
While sports such as soccer, golf and NASCAR have resumed, and youth sports are returning (some with reckless abandon), and most other U.S. pro sport leagues are working toward playing in virtual biospheres, there is something particularly compelling about baseball’s return.
On location here in Kansas City, no less.
Tinged with bitterness as it might be after the vitriolic negotiations it took to get back on the field: The MLB Players Association repeatedly bristled at what ownership was offering in what seems a prelude to contentious negotiations ahead after baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.
And tenuous as it might be with some players opting out and the only faces in any crowd at Kauffman to be the “hard-plastic cutout” likenesses of up to 500 participating season-ticket holders … and with presumably even the Salvy Splash shelved.
But for all the precautions, and as much as we hope this can proceed safely, who’s to say with certainty that the revised opening days scheduled for later this month even will come to pass?
It’s hard to fathom all the trap doors that could render this restart doomed for the foreseeable future and have us even wondering about the viability — and advisability — of this year’s football seasons.
Even so, these hovering concerns are largely temporary conditions of a historic time of profound flux, a remarkable convergence of the yet-unrestrained virus and the unfiltered voices in the wake of the brazen, casual murder of Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
In time, baseball will be played as it was.
But it sure feels like a change that’s here to stay from this pivotal era is this: athletes’ empowerment and use of their platforms that has grown out of the broader awakening and reckoning in this country. And around the globe, for that matter, including in England’s Premier League.
We’ve seen that movement gaining momentum at the collegiate level for months. My friend and colleague Blair Kerkhoff wrote about that earlier this week amid the ongoing developments at Kansas State in response to a tweet posted last week by a student that said, “Congratulations to George Floyd on being drug free for an entire month.”
KSU football players and other athletes (including women’s basketball player Christianna Carr) declared “it is a promise that we will not play” until the school creates a policy enabling a student to be expelled for “openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions” toward fellow students.
Stay tuned for those developments, the most recent in a series of college athletes demanding change, with none more notable than what happened in Mississippi.
Raising anew an issue that had been stifled for years by state politicians, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill said on Twitter he “won’t be representing this State anymore” unless it changed the Mississippi flag that bears a Confederate battle emblem.
With support ultimately including Bulldogs coach Mike Leach, Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin and other coaches and administrators around the state, less than a week later a bill to change the flag passed in the Mississippi House and Senate.
Less monumental, but still substantially, Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu of the Chiefs appeared in a powerful “Stronger Together” video in support of Black Lives Matter.
That was instrumental in evoking an apology from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for how the league reacted to peaceful protest efforts led by Colin Kaepernick.
“We … admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell said in his video response.
Conspicuous by its absence was any direct mention of Kaepernick, whose kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality was advised by retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer.
But that didn’t prevent some factions from willfully warping and misrepresenting Kaepernick’s intent and stoking a backlash against him by calling him anti-military, anti-American and then some.
That included the frothing of President Donald Trump in Alabama in 2017: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now’ ”
The truth is that these athletes are standing on matters of principle and using their voices much more responsibly than the demonstrably unprincipled leader of the free world.
As I wrote to a dissenting reader the other day, it’s a sham and a shame that some intentionally misrepresent that because they evidently can’t bear to contemplate the truth.
In fact, these athletes are patriots using their platforms to protest systemic racism and police brutality and constructively working to at last fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence that “All men (meaning humanity in general) are created equal.”
This new reality of seizing the power of their voices will alienate some people. Some will be nostalgic for the good old days when the good old boys ruled. They’ll yearn for a golden past … in which many were oppressed or silenced and athletes existed not so much as human beings but purely for their amusement.
When it comes to the grim ravages of the virus, this, too, shall pass. And we can hope its lessons prevent the chance of anything like this happening again.
But that won’t, and shouldn’t, be the case when it comes to the rise of social consciousness and empowerment of athletes perhaps intensified by the fact that “time stopped,” as Mizzou men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin put it last week.
Because it’s been effective in a vital way.
And because they, like many others, have new priorities and perspectives now.
That’s what will most have shifted in the sports landscape whenever we truly emerge from the dividing line of the pandemic.
Whether it’s in the weeks to come with attached quirks or, perish the thought, still months away.