At first, I thought this feeling only pertained to major league fields. The first ballpark I ever saw in person was old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. I was a sophomore in high school and had an opportunity to see a major league game for the first time ever.
To this day, I can still close my eyes and see the vibrant green grass of the outfield; the dark tan crust of the infield, the bazzillion watt candlepower of the stadium lights, the smells of spilled warm beer and Philly's signature soft pretzels, the electrified murmur of the crowd as we found our seats. My pulse quickened when the players took the field. It's all there for me. Instantly. To this day.
Then, after I became a small-town sports writer, I discovered the feeling was nearly the same when I went to cover games at Holt-Moffitt Field, or Salisbury's Newman Park or Thomasville's Finch Field. The stadiums were smaller, of course. But the baseball field dimensions were basically the same.
What is it about baseball that, for me at least, is like no other sport?
Baseball, of course, took a necessary hiatus when the coronavirus pandemic showed up. Opening Day was pushed back from March 26 until July 23 while MLB tried to figure out how to safely social distance while playing games.
So after four months elapsed, baseball took the field again the other night. And it was ... strange.
There are no fans in the stands (unless they are cardboard cutouts. Also, no electrified murmurs, unless it's canned; no soft pretzels; no stale beer). Players wear face masks in the dugout. The National League now has the designated hitter; extra inning games start with a runner on second base; most games are leaning toward regional (Yankees v. Mets; Cubs v. White Sox; Dodgers v. Angels) in an effort to cut down travel on airplanes.
The game is the same, but somehow different.
If there are no fans in the stands, why can't players play the game in gym shorts and t-shirts? Why can't umpires wear shorts? Can managers argue with umpires if they wear N95 masks? Perhaps not. It's not a good look for television.
Then there's this times-have-really-changed moment, when Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo joyfully dispensed hand sanitizer to Milwaukee base runner Orlando Arcia the other night:
Baseball also has this: It's a sometimes slow-moving, but ultimately an inevitable vehicle for social change, if not social awareness. Think Jackie Robinson.
So the other night, when the Nationals hosted the Yankees in their season opener, players from both teams knelt during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Depending on where you stand in the political spectrum, you were either infuriated, or celebratory. I bet Jackie Robinson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, and a civil rights activist, would have approved. Why? He was once court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated bus. He was later exonerated. His social reform roots were deep.
The pandemic, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the economy, the Confederacy, the Constitution, have all descended and coalesced upon us almost at once, and it's exhausting.
I hesitate to turn to a work of fiction (even though the times we're living in seem stranger than fiction), but one of the best descriptions of baseball I've ever heard came from a fictional character, Terrance Mann, in "Field of Dreams" as he speaks to protagonist Ray Kinsella about his magical cornstalk-infested baseball field:
"The one constant through the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again."