In a Burning World, They Keep Playing Baseball

The smoke is everywhere. It is in everything. It is inescapable. Closing the windows can’t keep it out completely. No air purifier will absorb all of the particles of ash. It has been days now since I stepped outside without feeling it immediately: the heaviness, the scratching in my throat and my lungs and my eyes. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m healthy, and I’m indoors, and though the air here is full of the aftermath of fires, those fires are far away to the south, where the wind is blowing in from. There, the fires are still burning. They burn more by the hour. Thousands of people have been displaced, forced to take refuge in fairgrounds left empty by the pandemic, the fates of their homes and their livelihoods unknown. Thousands more still have to work in this state of uncertainty, with the air around them full of danger. Dozens are missing; dozens have been killed. The skies have gone deep red, then disappeared entirely. And this, we are told, is what we have to look forward to in the summers of the future: More burning. More toxic air. More displacement. More death.

Through it all, they keep playing baseball.

***

T-Mobile Park with wildfire smoke inside.

The image looks like it’s been doctored, like someone has run a bad filter over it. Everything has a blurry red-gray haze: the players, the cardboard fans, the grass. More than 790,000 acres of land in the state of Washington has been consumed by fire. In Seattle, though, the Mariners are, unexpectedly, in the midst of a playoff push. They are scheduled to play a double-header. The amount of fine particulate matter in the air measures over 200 micrograms per cubic meter. The roof being closed doesn’t help.

Almost a month ago, when the fires started burning, MLB clarified their position on the cancellation of games due to air quality. There is precedent for such a thing happening. Northwestern minor league teams have done it in recent years; so have teams in the Australian Baseball League. But as far as major league teams go, MLB has decided on a hands-off approach, leaving the decision of whether or not to play with team ownership. There has been much discussion of air-quality-related postponement over the past month; there has yet to be an actual postponement. Not when the skies above Oracle Park were thick with an eerie orange haze, not when ash blanketed the cars parked outside the Oakland Coliseum. And not in Seattle, where the Air Quality Index stayed firmly in the Unhealthy range throughout Monday. In Vancouver, Canada Post canceled all deliveries. It was unsafe, they said, to make postal workers walk around in this environment.

It looks, in the video of T-Mobile Park on my screen, much like it does outside my window. Light disperses in weird ways, obscuring faces both alive and not; the outlines of nearby buildings rendered almost invisible. And sheltered in my room, all the windows closed and the purifier blasting on its highest setting, I watch as the Mariners and the A’s, who have now played in unfavorable air quality conditions in multiple states, take the field. Some draw fabric covers over their faces: protection from spreading the coronavirus, but not from the inhalation of smoke. Others, like Ramón Laureano, wear N-95 masks as they stand out there, waiting as usual for the pitch, the sound of contact — the deep breath and the exhale.

And though baseball can be a very effective means of escaping the circumstances of the world outside the stadium — even this season, when the reminders of the pandemic are everywhere — it is impossible to find yourself escaping when the problem currently menacing the outside world is visible in the air itself, the air through which the players move, the air through which the baseball is to fly. It looks so dense that you can almost smell it.

Still, they keep playing baseball. No one, after all, is telling them to stop.

***

In the first game, the Mariners, somehow, manage to stage a comeback, down 5-1 after four innings of a truncated seven-inning game. In the fifth, it’s two home runs: one from José Marmolejos, one from Kyle Lewis, breaking an 0-for-13. And in the sixth, a single from Phillip Ervin and a two-out double from Tim Lopes tie the game at 5. The final out of the sixth proves elusive. Joakim Soria walks Dylan Moore, walks Ty France after him. To the plate comes Lewis. And with a flourish, he takes four consecutive balls. Marco Gonzales, the Mariners’ put-upon starter, screams from the dugout. They hold on in the top of the seventh, and the Mariners win, the strange, heavy lights shining down on them.

After the game, it seems like the second game of the double-header is in jeopardy. Jesús Luzardo, the A’s starter for the first game, talks about gasping for breath. So does Laureano. But a few hours after the first game ended, they reappear on the field, the air now looking even worse. And in the very first inning, something incredible happens.

Jimmy Yacabonis is on the mound for the Mariners, and from the very first batter he faces — Tommy La Stella, who gets hit by a pitch — it’s clear that this is going to be a struggle. It isn’t long before a run scores, before the bases are loaded with two out, and Laureano hammers a pitch to center. It’s a home run, heading over the wall, but Lewis runs after it, full-throttle, leaps into the air with his glove arm extended, and somehow — somehow — it lands in the glove, and he lands on his feet, his body unable to contain his joy as he bounds over the outfield grass.

It’s a beautiful play. It draws instant comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. And when we watch it again, when we return to it in highlight reels years in the future, it will always be partially obscured by the haze: pure elation, leaping and shouting and breathing in an atmosphere of visible poison.

***

Yesterday’s Giants-Mariners game was postponed. The smoke was too thick, the playing conditions too hazardous. MLB, it seems, is now considering the creation of league-wide thresholds for air quality. The ballparks of the west are all open-air; the increasing heat and dryness, the decades of fire mismanagement, all suggest that there will certainly be more giant smoke clouds in our future. It is now a question of how often such wildfire disasters will happen, and of how we will choose to deal with them — what level of risk is considered tolerable. There is no amount of smoke inhalation that has no effect on the body when sustained over a long period. It is always dangerous. But for most people, it is business as usual, headaches and burning eyes be damned. There is simply no other option other than to work, even if the very air itself is unsafe.

And baseball, for now, is no different. The entertainment provided by a professional sport is deemed essential enough to play through such aberrant conditions, if not for the people whom it entertains, then for the people whose profits depend upon it; only outcry from the players and the public can put a halt to the proceedings. It is still unnerving to see these baseball games played in noxious clouds. And maybe, someday in the future, it won’t be. Maybe we will get used to this. I hope we don’t. I really, really hope we don’t.

We hoped you liked reading In a Burning World, They Keep Playing Baseball by Rachael McDaniel!

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Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Chaise Kahlenbeck
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Chaise Kahlenbeck

Heavy. Eloquently written.

I’m grateful for this.