Maybe just by luck, MLB beat the exponential explosion of the Spanish flu by just a few weeks. In Philadelphia, after a big Sept. 28 parade that was not canceled, the virus erupted exponentially. In a six-week period, 12,000 in Philadelphia died. In all, a third of the world’s population was infected.
The 1919 season began April 23, just one week later than the year before, when the first Spanish flu cases barely had reached America. The Phillies’ home opener that day drew an estimated 12,000 to the Baker Bowl.
Epidemiologists might not call this apples to apples. But this broad general time frame — from the start of a baseball shutdown because of a pandemic to the game’s return just 7½ months later — is one of the few flu facts that give me a thimble of encouragement and patience these days.
Our job right now is to minimize the casualties, and canceling sports events is a basic element. But until proved otherwise, I’m taking the position (for my emotional health) that the science of 2020 can beat the medicine of 1918 by quite a bit when it comes to restoring a semblance of normal daily life. Baseball will be back. For now, the season has been pushed back at least eight weeks, and that probably will increase. But when the game does return, like many ordinary wonderful things, it suddenly will seem like an extraordinarily wonderful thing.
Late last week, when one element of society after another shut down like the walls closing in on a trapped character in a horror story, the World Series champion Washington Nationals shook their heads in disappointed disbelief. In those days, the organization realized that of all the teams that have won the World Series, these Nats were going to be the most overshadowed, upstaged and under-praised on record.
First, they lost star third baseman Anthony Rendon in free agency, dimming their chances to repeat — at least in the eyes of those in Las Vegas. Then, the Houston Astros, the team with which the Nats share a spring training complex, were tried and convicted by MLB of massive team-wide cheating during the entire 2017 season and part of 2018, too. Suddenly, the mountain of shame atop the Astros’ 2017 World Series title far surpassed the hillock of faint praise for the Nats’ win over those same Astros.
Finally, the novel coronavirus seemed like the last straw in cosmic, almost comic disrespect. At least it did as recently as six days ago, when the Nats were still allowed to pack 8,000 people into the stands for an exhibition game with the New York Yankees.
Then, in a fraction of a blink, everything in American daily life changed, and proper credit for a baseball championship — even the first one in 95 years in Washington — seemed inconsequential relative to a public health crisis.
The Nats passed that test nicely, too, putting their concerns in perspective quickly. Max Scherzer realized immediately that pro athletes, by attracting fans and also interacting with them, were potentially quite dangerous as virus vectors. “We don’t want to be at the forefront of the transmission of this,” he said.
As for the need to shut down fast and stay down until the crisis passes, Sean Doolittle nailed it: “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
No matter how remote and vague it seems right now, baseball — and the Nationals — will be back. Maybe this summer. No one can possibly know. But even as a hypothetical, a half-season starting around July 4 would be plenty of games to decide valid teams to play in a normal October postseason. In the strike-interrupted 1981 season, some teams played as few as 103 games. No one said the Los Angeles Dodgers’ win in the World Series was anything less than a legitimate title.
My guess is that, whenever MLB returns, even if it’s next year — let’s not linger over that scenario because of all the far-larger negative implications it carries — the Nats’ concern about being the all-time afterthought champion may disappear. In fact, the situation may even be turned on its head. In Washington, perhaps even throughout American sports, if the timing seems right, the Nationals may seem like an especially proper group to praise.
After all, when their chances seemed worst with a 19-31 record last May, the Nationals’ motto was, “Go 1-0 today.” Right now, I can’t think of a better mantra for a pandemic. When the size of the whole problem is too big to digest in one gulp, only a narrow focus works. When the total time demanded will be measured in months, maybe many of them, one day is an amount of time we can manage. The Nats pushed every day, against the odds, for more than five months.
The Nats’ “1-0 today” lockdown was mental, psychological and competitive — and only about baseball. But with the months ahead for all of us — during which the daily focus on health, helping others and lockdowns on unhelpful behaviors is so vital — the Nationals stand out as an almost perfect illustration of making the most of a lousy situation. They boosted one another’s spirits, refused to point blaming fingers and excused the century’s worst bullpen.
The Nats also did it while dancing and hugging. That won’t translate now — except metaphorically. Our hugs will have to be through phones, emails, texts and video calls. The dancing? Perhaps it will be in our hearts as we celebrate medical breakthroughs or falling infection numbers. Or perhaps when we can summon the right composition of feeling, we can even dance a bit with anticipation of the day when the pandemic of 2020 will be a thing for history books.
This will pass, though with many wounds. We all will find our own touchstones that make the future seem as exciting and expansive as the present seems disturbing and confined. Some of us will rely on the certainty that we will be able to say, “Baseball is back!” And when it is, one town will be able to rev its sense of daily life back up by welcoming the World Series champions to Nationals Park. By presenting big fat rings. Perhaps by saying thanks for “Go 1-0 today.”
It will happen. And it won’t take 95 years.