On the sunny days, you do not see the emptiness, only the colors. The blue overhead, the green underfoot, the thick white blankets coating the branches of trees the way snow used to do. It will be a lasting image from these weeks: a society in turmoil, a world in bloom.
On the sunny days, it’s the people that you notice: joggers, bikers, exercisers, families of three or four or five walking languidly through rectangles of green. The other day, I saw three people running across the grass on their hands and feet. Bear crawls, they are called. The term makes a lot of sense when you watch them from a slightly elevated position 50 yards away.
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Standing at the edge of FDR Park, the empty stadiums rising to the east, etched against the late March blue, a trio of women scampered up a hill and back down again. Wearing yoga pants and matching tees, they looked primal enough that my dog straightened up from his usual scavenging slouch and stiffened into the tall, erect posture of a creature not entirely sure of his place on the food chain. The fear that churned beneath his surface became a stance of rigid alertness. Confronted with a danger that he had never before had an opportunity to appraise, he stood still and stiff and attempted to project a sense of self-confidence that he clearly hoped would not be tested.
There is some irony here, I suppose. Scenes like this are foreign ones because they usually unfold inside communal walls: fitness studios, cross-fit garages, health club classrooms, the spaces we create as outlets for the primal urges that our species has yet to outrun. You can take away the walls, but our basic needs remain. On the sunny days, the community feels as alive as it ever has.
It’s the gray days when the current moment seizes you, when it infiltrates your soul and forces you make a couple of twists of the lens deeper inside, when you no longer feel as if you are experiencing life but, rather, watching it unfold. The sidewalk and the street and the vacant subway hubs look as foreign as another planet. I remember science class, staring at pictures of extraterrestrial surfaces, terrain, and horizon and not much more, attempting to convince myself that they really exist, to conceptualize them from a first person perspective, but failing to do so, because my mind’s eye had no way to imagine a surface so foreign. The gray days are like that, except you are actually there, attempting to process a landscape that is fundamentally unlike any that you have ever experienced.
A couple of days before Opening Day, I set out on a run. There was no blue, only gray, and everything seemed like it melted into it. I ran south down 9th and west down Tasker and then, five blocks later, turned south again. Everything was empty. The street and the sidewalk and the vacant storefronts, the benches and the fields and the athletic courts, all sat like husks discarded by a civilization in flight. For a couple of miles, I was alone. And then I wasn’t.
At Pattison Avenue, I turned to the left, toward the three gargantuan buildings rising high above the dormant industrial landscape, and a line of idling cars stretching down the block. I remember the sound of the breeze. It was the only sound. It whistled through the wrought iron gates and danced with the abandoned drink containers and sandwich wrappers. The cars made no sounds. The people within them peered like ghosts out their windows with slouched shoulders and masked faces and eyes staring blankly as I ran past.
Two police cars sat side by side. Behind them, in a lot where members of the sporting press would normally park, a series of tents stood like solemn frontier garrisons, their sterile white flaps shuddering in the breeze. One by one, the cars turned into the parking lot. One by one, they paused in front of the police officers standing guard. One by one, they rolled on toward the tents, and the life-altering tests being conducted within. I held my breath and I quickened my pace until the vacant stadium was on my left. I turned onto another empty street and headed north. I did not look back.
Baseball has always been a bellwether of sorts. In January of 1942, with the world unraveling into another decade of war, commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a handwritten note asking “if major league baseball should be suspended during the war.” Roosevelt’s response was unequivocal.
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” the president wrote to the commissioner.
As we prepare for the first baseball-less April in nearly three decades, the national talk is beginning to turn toward a more universal opening day. Bars and restaurants and barber shops and airports and offices that not long ago we’d all longed to escape. The headlines say that the president has one opinion and the governors have another and the health experts and economists have very few answers for what might constitute a viable middle way.
The thing that the headlines miss, and perhaps the politicians as well, is that no top-down edict can alter the reality on the ground. As long as the parking lots belong to nasal swabs, there will be no room for tailgaters. As long as the virus continues to spread, there will be no room for large crowds. We are well past the point where a singular pronouncement from a singular voice can alter the manners in which the participants in the economy have adapted their behavior. A return to normalcy is not something that an individual can decide.
With that, a prediction. As with previous societal disruptions, it will be sports that signal the time has arrived. It is a monumental responsibility that will inevitably be spread among all of those involved, from the commissioners to the owners to the players and even the scribes. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the trajectory of recovery will be shaped first and foremost by the manner in which our leagues choose to proceed. One thing that all seem to understand: With three days to go before the Phillies were scheduled to open their home schedule, we are not yet close to that point.