So the sun, which has taken time off, and Oriole pitchers and catchers, who have been off for even longer, are expected to be back today. By this afternoon, the sun should be shining here, and in Sarasota, Florida, where the Orioles gather for spring training.
It would seem to be a time to escape the gloomy, gray days of February, as hope springs eternal. But that sense of excitement is still missing.
The pandemic overtook it last spring, when Major League Baseball shut down its game on March 12th and eventually settled on a 60-game season without fans. The minor leagues never did get restarted, so a number of the Orioles’ prospects ended up at the alternate site in Bowie, where they did their best to stay competitive. Still, the lack of a minor league season seemed particularly detrimental to the Orioles because their future depends on the development of many of those players.
Now, after a season that we watched from a distance, like everything else, baseball is back and intent on playing 162 games. The Orioles even announced on Friday that they will let some fans — 25 percent capacity — attend Grapefruit League games at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. With the arrival of more vaccines, there is hope that things will get better throughout the season to the point where the environment will be more like 2019 than 2020.
It would be wonderful if that were to happen because we observed last year that the games are not the same without fans. Without their response to spectacular plays, timely hits, sizzling fastballs and failed strategies. Without their passion for a game that seems slow at times but requires exceptional hand-eye coordination and reflexes. Without their loyalty to the home team no matter the performance.
When baseball came back last season, I wasn’t sure it was the right thing. Pro sports require so many health resources during Covid-19 that it seemed they should be going to those more in need. But sports also provide entertainment during a time when we need it, a distraction from the everyday issues and isolation.
I watched the Dodgers win the World Series, noting that the best team won in a season when there was thought that anything could happen. I enjoyed watching the promise of Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Dean Kremer and Tanner Scott.
In 1966, when the Orioles had traded for Frank Robinson, he slammed a double in his first spring training at-bat. It was a sign of what was to come during a season when he won the Triple Crown and the Orioles won their first world championship.
I felt connected to the Orioles as a high school sophomore, a feeling that never left me during that magical season that concluded with a four-game sweep of the Sandy Koufax-led Dodgers.
I’m a long way from high school and feel a similar distance from the Orioles and baseball as spring training begins. They’re a long way from the quality of the 1966 team, but I also think the pandemic has contributed to making the game less personal, something baseball desperately needs as owners and players reflect the divide that exists in so many other areas of our life.
Let’s hope for brighter days and that baseball would find a way to reconnect with those who feel socially distanced from it. Maybe those feelings will warm up again as spring turns to summer and baseball and its fans are reunited.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Calling the Pen, a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to Calling the Pen, send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.