How Covid-19 Changed Baseball and American Life in 2020
“Anyone who wants to know the heart and soul of America has an interest in learning baseball,” wrote Jacques Barzun, cultural historian and baseball bard.
Barzun’s famous commentary, published in 1954, came at a time when icons like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson graced the game. Two-thirds of a century later, the players have changed and the country has changed. , but the association between American life and baseball still rings true. To understand one, you have to learn from the other.
Baseball, after suffering two world wars, a great depression and now a global pandemic, teaches us America’s perseverance and courage. But that’s not all. As it has done throughout history, Major League Baseball (MLB) in 2020 has taught us many valuable lessons about America’s heart and mind:
1. Survival requires sacrifice
In the mind of every baseball fan, there is a catalog of timeless images that capture the essence of the sport. For example, the first five, which would have invented by baseball players in the 1970s, signals the spirit of celebration of a job well done, whether it’s pitching an inning without a hitting or hitting a home run. Spitting in public is another classic baseball image, albeit less revered. And then, of course, there’s the sight of the team principal roaring on the pitch in protest against a bad call; his hat turned and his face inches from the referee’s.
In 2020, these telltale signs of baseball, and many more, were banned. Thanks to the new hygiene and safety protocols imposed by the League, the skippers risked immediate expulsion if they got too close to a referee during a dispute. In addition, new rules prohibit sputum in order to prevent the transmission of the virus by droplets. And, while this has proven difficult to enforce, players have been cautioned to avoid group celebrating at home plate.
The lesson here is that sacrificing a little freedom and normalcy is worth it when it saves us from having to sacrifice everything. After all, without the willingness of players to embrace these many constraints, there would not have been a 2020 season or a World Series. It’s a lesson that resonates beyond the baseball field. When we all wear masks, keep our distance and avoid yelling in your face, we prevent the virus from spreading and live to see another season.
2. Sometimes a “new normal” is better than the old one.
Once the pandemic is over, players will eagerly await a return to the “old normal”, competing in front of real fans and spitting again in public. However, all the security-inspired rule changes imposed in 2020 are unlikely to go away with the virus. Consider using the designated hitter, for example.
Until this season, baseball remained the only major professional sport in which two halves of the same league played under different rules. Since 1973, American League pitchers have been replaced in batting lineup with a so-called Designated Hitter (DH), while the National League has kept to tradition, sending low-strike pitchers to bat. But when Covid-19 compressed the season, forcing pitchers to pitch more innings each week, the National League chose to reduce the stress on pitching staff by adopting the DH rule, 47 years after the American League.
Other experimental changes, such as the seven-round doubles schedule, helped speed up the games to the delight of many fans and broadcasters. While it remains to be seen how many of these fixes will remain in the post-coronavirus era, we can learn a valuable lesson from these innovations out of necessity: Some rules (even long-standing ones) deserve to be challenged and changed.
Outside of baseball, many archaic regulations were dropped this year. For example, in the first six months of the pandemic, when patients were reluctant to seek medical care in person, the US government relaxed its restrictions on the use of telemedicine. As recently as last year, only 8% of Americans had participated in a “telehealth” visit with a doctor, even though video-based care is more convenient, less expensive, and often as good as in-person care. This number has increased significantly in 2020.
As with baseball, it took a global pandemic for authorities to intelligently change the outdated rules. Rather than resist telemedicine, as doctors have done in the past, today a growing number of patients and doctors are hoping telemedicine persists after the end of the pandemic. Crises are times when the impossible becomes possible and something better has a good chance of becoming the new normal.
3. Complacency kills
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays have experienced breathtaking excitement on their respective journeys to the World Series. In the National League Championship Series (NLCS), the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 deficit to topple the Atlanta Braves while the Tampa Bay Rays nearly ceded a 3-0 lead to the Houston Astros in the ALCS.
Both series provided an apt metaphor for 2020, a year in which Americans have twice assumed the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has been canceled. As baseball icon Yogi Berra once said, “It’s not over until it’s over. Indeed, in cities across the United States and across mainland Europe, the coronavirus has not only reappeared, but has surged. As our country grew confident and more complacent in recent months, a so-called “third wave” has erupted, now threatening the health of millions of people.
As cases skyrocket in Europe, Governments in Switzerland and Italy have been forced to institute nationwide mask warrants as Ireland relaunches a full-scale lockdown for six weeks. Here in the United States, Americans are finally realizing that the virus is far from over and that the pandemic will last longer than we would like. We should all be gearing up for a full “seven game series” against this most pesky of opponents.
4. Disruptors deserve a moment to shine
With a season cut short, the MLB had to pack more games in fewer days. To protect pitchers’ arms, the league expanded the roster size from 25 to 28 just before the playoffs. The move led to teams raising underage pitchers much earlier in their careers than usual, giving these players the opportunity to prove themselves on the biggest stage in all of baseball.
The same is happening in the US economy. These times of great financial strain are creating unprecedented opportunities for entrepreneurs who probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities. Number of new business license applicants has grown at a faster rate than at any time since 2007. Rather than “wait their turn”, new startups and their founders are leaping into the big leagues. In healthcare, dozens of new data analytics and AI companies have sprung up, marking rapid growth since the start of the pandemic. With the door now open, people from all walks of life are seizing the opportunity to disrupt business as usual.
5. Hope is not an effective strategy
At the start of the 2020 season and every season before it, hope springs enteral. Each team hoped to become their league champion and win the World Series. At the end of the day, it’s always about two teams fighting to be the ultimate winner.
Success in baseball, as in life, requires more than hope. It takes an effective strategy with flawless execution. For the Dodgers, a well-run minor league system, smart draft picks and a brilliant trade for Mookie Betts in February laid the foundation for success in 2020. For the Rays, it was solid data analysis (sabermetrics like they are called in baseball), the strategic pursuit of undervalued players and an intense focus on defense. In other words, it takes a lot more than hope to win it all.
Our nation’s pious response to the coronavirus has left us in the proverbial basement. Month after month, Americans hoped the numbers would improve but failed to do what was necessary to temper the threat.
Despite the many similarities between our favorite hobby and American life as we know it now, there is a huge difference. As former MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote, “The game starts in the spring, when everything else starts over. Indeed, no matter how many games a team has won or lost in the past year, baseball will reset in the spring and start all over again. The Covid-19 will not be. Even if a vaccine is approved by April, there is no guarantee that it will be totally safe, totally effective or taken by the majority of Americans. Therefore, the best estimates are that this pandemic will persist throughout 2021 and could finally claim half a million American lives.
Hope is a useful tool when paired with smart strategy and an intense desire to be successful. Some baseball teams and some nations have it. Others don’t. Sadly, when it comes to the coronavirus, America’s losing season will continue long after baseball’s next opening day.