The Joy Given and the Joy Taken Away

Here is a story from yesterday: At the beginning of July, Yoán Moncada tested positive for COVID-19. He didn’t know where or how he got the disease. He missed the beginning of the White Sox training camp, sitting at home, his sense of smell and taste — a tell-tale symptom — temporarily gone. When he was cleared to come to camp two weeks later, manager Rick Renteria said that he looked “like he hadn’t skipped a beat.” Moncada himself said that he was “glad to be back and be healthy,” though his days since the diagnosis had been “scary and a difficult time.”

And yesterday, three months after that frightening positive test, Moncada spoke to reporters about how the virus is still affecting him. He described it as a battle — to summon the energy that had, prior to getting COVID-19, been abundant; to simply make it through each day, to push through the “weird feeling” that has drained him of his strength. “But that’s just something I have to deal with,” he concluded, “and it is what it is. I have to find a way to get through it.”

***

Here’s another story from yesterday: Even before the pandemic, Minor League Baseball as we know it was in limbo. MLB’s plan to contract the minor leagues, moving them under the purview of the MLB head office and leaving dozens of franchises staring down an uncertain future, became public knowledge in the dying days of the 2019 season.

Our world has changed dramatically since last October. MLB’s plan hasn’t. If anything, the Office of the Commissioner has even more justification to squeeze the minors: The pandemic has dealt a death-blow to many minor-league teams, whose profits, unlike those of major-league teams, are largely tied to game day ticket and concession sales. And yesterday, an ESPN report detailed the confusion and bitterness around the impending fundamental changes coming to the minors. Some minor league owners have been lobbying lawmakers to step in, and team owners have continued to attempt negotiations with MLB. But the deal, it seems, is done, and most teams are just trying to be among those left standing when this is all over. “Minor League Baseball,” as the article says, “a tradition of languid summer nights at ballparks where families can afford to watch future stars, has been reduced to a paranoid game of ‘Survivor.'”

***

And here’s another story from yesterday: In an interview with ESPN, Manny Machado — resurgent and resplendent on the Padres team that has taken baseball by storm — talked a lot about fun, and he talked a lot about joy. Fun: the connecting line between his experience of baseball now, as a multi-millionaire professional, and his experience of baseball as a kid. Joy: the experience that Machado feels the Padres bringing to their fans, to the sport of baseball in general. Here’s what Machado had to say about fun:

At the end of the day, it’s about going out there and having fun. And when you’re having fun, baseball just comes naturally to you. … I’ve been doing this a long time, and honestly it’s the same game right now as when I was a kid. You gotta catch the ball, you gotta throw the ball, you gotta hit the ball. The baseball has obviously gotten better, the bats have gotten better, the gloves have gotten better, the technology has gotten a lot better. But it’s the same game. It’s the same game that we love to play.

You didn’t think about stats, you didn’t think about home runs, you didn’t think about any of that when you were young. You were thinking about just going out there and having fun and getting ready to go have pizza with a soda at the end of the game and playing with your friends. It’s the same game now. Obviously it’s at the highest level, but you just have to go out there and enjoy yourself. And with the group that we have here, every single day it goes back to that. We just wanna have fun. And when you play at ease like that, it maximizes your level.

And here’s what he had to say about joy:

Going to the ballpark every day, people are excited. And obviously it sucks that we don’t have fans in the stands, but we have a lot of media telling us what’s going on with social media, people cheering us on. We’re bringing so much joy to this game every single night that every time we step on that field, we just wanna go out there and have a good time no matter if we’re losing or we’re winning. We just wanna go out there and just play baseball and give fans something to cheer for.

This season, Machado said, with this team, is the most fun he’s had playing baseball in a long time.

***

These three stories, all of them published on the same day — this is the emotional experience of baseball in 2020, paranoia and relief and depression and elation, all transposed into the familiar key of nine (or sometimes seven) innings, three outs, three strikes, all roiling together. If you let yourself settle into it, half-close your eyes and focus on something else, you can almost forget the turmoil of the world outside the empty stadiums. That never lasts long. There is always something that makes you remember. Sometimes it’s unique to this year — players sick, games canceled; other times, the ill that’s exposed was there all along. Sports are products of the societies that create them, and the society major league baseball currently inhabits is far from healthy. Major league baseball breathes, but its breath is labored, its face a little grey. Any illness in dirty air becomes obvious.

But then — all of a sudden, there is life again. There are five grand slams, a no-hitter. Favorite players do well. Games are walked off. Success knocks, unexpected, and then arrives, crossing the doorstep with a flourish. There are smiles, even laughs. Having fun. And there are others, all the other people out there, feeling that same sharp jolt. Joy. 

You see it in the moments immediately following Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter, the achievement of a lifetime after so much struggle. He feels it, that surge in the heart. It is transcendent. He is overwhelmed by it. His teammates are overwhelmed by it. They throw their arms around each other.

And it is in that second that you remember the pandemic — the danger — remember that they aren’t supposed to be doing this, that they shouldn’t be this close — remember how long it’s been since you’ve been able to hug all your own loved ones, to even be near them — and the jolt becomes a gasp. Pain.

There is so much we have lost, and so much we may yet lose. And baseball, for all it may contain, can’t cancel those losses out.

***

In the drawer where I keep all my papers and old notebooks, beside the newspaper my brother brought me from Washington, D.C., the day after the Nationals won the World Series, there’s a crumpled package of photocopied sheets, poorly stapled, bent in eight different directions. I got the sheets from a counselor back in December. I can’t do anything, I told him: everything overwhelms me, everything is bad.  The counselor was sympathetic, but since I was not in obvious, imminent danger of harming myself or others, there was little he could offer me. So he offered me the sheets of paper — cognitive behavioral therapy homework, the kind I’ve seen so many times. I never did the homework. I had forgotten about it until I unearthed it yesterday. Searching for old notes, my eye immediately caught on the only bolded phrase on the page, confronting me almost like a threat: Fun is not an option. It is important!

Of all the various tenets of stress management that I’ve read over the years, this has always been one that I’ve reflexively discarded. Of course, fun is important, but what about everything else? What about taking care of the people around me? What about making enough money to eat, to pay for the roof over my head? The pandemic has made the collective experiences that I would search for fun in either rare or nonexistent. And it has made the important concerns, the ones that left so little time for fun, all the more urgent. Fun is not an option — but for many people, for most people, it has to be. Other things have to come first. We are trying to survive as best we can. It is so hard to see, sometimes, where there is room for fun. The clock is always ticking, and the fun, the joy — it’s all on stolen time.

***

But I steal it, still. From the grand slams and the walk-offs, the no-hitters and the blowouts — I steal the joy that the players carry, wherever I can find it. And the pandemic is still here, everywhere, every breath of air and every touch suspect. And the pain runs deep in every conversation with people I can’t see, in every news item detailing more murders, more overdoses, more fires burning, and the money is dwindling, and the jobs don’t call back, and even in the morning the sleep doesn’t come. What, in the face of a darkening future, could justify this theft?

But I steal that joy, the joy carried to me through the pixels and the fake noise. I cling to it before it dissipates, as it always does, its particles consumed by thicker, heavier air. It might be wrong. It might be foolish. But I always find myself waiting for the next chance to feel that sharp life in my chest. To know that, despite everything, there are places where joy can be found — even when it shouldn’t be there.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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BirdyMarte6
1 year ago

Thanks for this