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How far can you remove yourself from baseball and still feel connected?

Thoughts on a baseball season seemingly set to be played in isolation.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

I talked myself into writing about simulated baseball yesterday, convinced it would only take a short bit. It did, fortunately, as about three minutes in it hit me that it was something I couldn’t possibly bring myself to care about.

Writing about fake baseball in the time of no baseball feels like a mockery to me, like having a driving range with no course. While it’s something that I have delved into deeply and often in the past, it only truly functions alongside real, live baseball, something that’s lacking sorely at the moment during this pandemic.

What stopped me in my tracks, though, was when it occurred to me that the current, most reasonable set of proposals for how to kick-start the 2020 MLB season were, in essence, creating simulated baseball on a slightly larger scale. Sending players to quarantine bubbles in Arizona (and, perhaps, Florida) seems to be the most feasible way to see baseballs hummed a hundred miles an hour and occasionally be turned around with the swat of a bat, but the the more I consider it, the more I’m beginning to realize just how small of a portion of baseball as we know it that part really is.

Sport, by nature, feeds on emotion. Passion, pride, fear, pain, all of it. And while putting baseball games on in empty desert stadiums can check the boxes on the baseball rule book and qualify technically as games being played, I’m having a hard time rectifying just how to pull and root for a club that cannot be pulled for or rooted for on purpose.

To be clear here, I am not advocating here for a full return to baseball normalcy at the risk of letting the virus spread further among us. I am also very much not advocating for the full cancellation of the 2020 baseball season as things currently stand. I’m merely trying to wrap my head around how to root for something that we cannot touch or feel with any visceral sense.

Mind you, I’m saying this as someone who is, and has long been, a fan of the Cincinnati Reds while living some thousand plus miles away from where they usually play. I cannot simply catch a cab to the game on a whim, when a happy hour beer prompts me to get over to the ballpark and catch a game that night. Going to games on a nightly basis physically cannot be my thing. The thing is, it can be for hundreds of thousands of other folks every single night, and that’s the part that is dampening my expectations for how invested I can get with this plan.

Baseball games in big baseball stadiums long ago became outlets for us to live vicariously, and the result has produced generation after generation of athletes who live on that fuel fans provide them. We scream, they feel, they react, we react, the adrenaline flows, and sport evolves from just ‘game.’ It gets loud, and the noise reverberates. The stage itself creates a pressure to perform, and does so in a sport where failure is perpetually around more often than success.

Joey Votto, in all his brilliance, cannot turn full heel and taunt Phillies fans with a foul ball or stomp a paper airplane that floated in from the upper deck if there are no Phillies fans nor fans to lob paper airplanes. His plate discipline will still be his plate discipline, but he becomes more “batter number two” than “Joey Votto” without the full experience around him. Derek Dietrich, in this biodome proposal, suffers a similar transitional fate. Chains bouncing and bats flipping need an audience, after all.

That’s the human element of it, both in description of the human fans that won’t be in the stands and pointing to the pulse of the humans who are on the field playing the game itself. That’s the other half of my dilemma - that we’re asking the players themselves to take on undo hardships just to play games into which fans cannot infuse the environment. Not only is it absurd to expect players to perform similarly when you take away the stage on which they have become accustomed to performing, but it’s patently bonkers to suggest they willingly separate themselves from those they know and love just to do so. Asking hundreds of players to sequester themselves from their families for months just to play a game that’s a shell of itself feels like you’ve stripped the emotion out of both ends of what baseball truly is, and has always been. It feels like merely forcing parties involved to go through the motions for the sake of going through them.

It feels like a simulation.

There are byproducts of asking our big leaguers to be robots for a time, and I get that. The TV contracts are there and gargantuan, and when there are billions of dollars on the line those dollars will talk louder than any emotion 99 out of 100 times. There’s also the windfall of keeping 2020 alive in the baseball world, as the future of minor league players and franchises and the communities built around them are on the line in many locales, too, and if getting that revenue stream up and running is what helps those futures remain intact, that’s a vitally important aspect in this. Hell, getting that going in 2020 will allow baseball to maybe, maybe look something like normal again in 2021, and its absence in whole this year would create a tremendous ripple effect on the big leagues as we know it should it completely shut down.

Avoiding that lingering disaster scenario is paramount, and I know that’s why these proposals are out there in earnest. And if the biodome Reds sock dingers and rip off win streaks galore, I’ll be doing everything I can to stay as engaged with it as I can from afar. Still, I can’t help but feel like we’re about to effectively watch baseball on mute for the foreseeable future, and that makes rooting for it merely rooting for the end, not the means.

Will it be better than nothing? Probably, but it will still serve as equal part painful reminder, I worry.

Anyway, here are last week’s FanPulse results, about which I am just as skeptically remorseful. If participating in this nebulous survey is something you’re interested in doing on a weekly basis, you can sign up for said opportunity here. Full disclosure: I am neither part of the data gathering nor privy to how it is turned into these result photos, so I cannot begin to inform you on seemingly pertinent aspects such as sample size or the multiple angles of bias on which they are formed.