Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner in 2016. Photo by Flickr user apardavila, licensed under CC BY.
For decades the Los Angeles Dodgers have been the “next year” franchise. So it is fitting that the Dodgers are Major League Baseball’s champions in 2020, when the entire world is eager to celebrate next year.
But this is not a paean to the excellence of the winning team or the poetic timing of their triumph over the formidable Tampa Bay Rays. Instead, this is a thank-you note to all of professional sports, but in particular to baseball, on behalf of a 90-something woman – my mother – who has been isolated in her New Jersey home for more than six months.
It might be an exaggeration to say that by salvaging its own season, baseball saved her life. But it is no stretch to say that it helped maintain her focus and stave off depression. What baseball did for her is a microcosm of what all sports (and other forms of entertainment) have done for fans in finding a way to operate in this pandemic. Even if only via our screens, they have brought us a semblance of life’s normal rhythms and routines. No one can say how many lives, and marriages, they saved, but I would wager the number isn’t small.
Although she was born in Brooklyn in the 1920s, my mother is not a lifelong Dodgers fan. She is actually an obsessive follower and long-distance bench coach of the New York Yankees. Old-timers may think this is sacrilege, but it actually shows that demography is destiny.
My mom, you see, was the youngest of two girls and three boys. Her sister, the eldest, kept any baseball interests and loyalties to herself, as far as I know. The oldest brother, my Uncle Willie, was a business tycoon, so he followed the Manhattan-based New York Giants. Uncle Solly, the troublemaking middle child, was the Dodgers’ guy. That left only the Yankees to Uncle Mendy, the youngest boy, who was six years older than my mother. So she tagged along with the big brother closest to her in age.
The only time my mother ever rooted against the Yankees was when I became old enough to follow baseball, in the late 1960s. The Yankees were pretty bad at the time, so I was bound to suffer. Mom entertained herself by rooting against the Yankees to torment me. Many years later, I returned the favor by switching my loyalties to the New York Mets. My strategy usually backfires; the Yankees roll into the playoffs annually, and the Mets typically just roll over.
Since my father’s death 10 years ago, my mom’s life has revolved around her town’s excellent senior citizens center and its programs. Every business day, a bus would pick her up in the morning and take her to the center, where she played cards or bingo with her social circle and ate her lunch. Once or twice a week, the bus would take her to do her grocery shopping, with occasional visits to the bank or to run other errands.
She could hardly wait for the weekends to end so she could resume her weekday social life. During baseball season, the Yankees occupied some of that downtime, as well as her evenings. Winters were a long, miserable weekend desert until the first televised spring training games arrived in March.
But in March 2020, what arrived was COVID-19. New Jersey was one of the states hit earliest and hardest, and the direst consequences were in nursing homes. It was a stroke of good luck that the new coronavirus did not make it into my mother’s center before it shut down in the middle of that month. She has been home alone ever since. I ferried supplies to her until I returned to my Florida home in May, after which I was able to arrange for deliveries. My brother has made occasional visits, and I am now back in the Northeast. We are able to provide for her physical needs. But what got her through the summer, emotionally, was baseball.
All the sports leagues had to make near-superhuman efforts to start or resume their seasons. The National Basketball Association put all its players in a bubble at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. The National Hockey League used a “hub cities” approach, with regional bubbles, to get through its playoffs. The National Football League has relied on testing and social distancing protocols in its ongoing season, along with canceling its preseason games and severely limiting fan attendance (sometimes to zero).
Baseball, which was halted during spring training, resumed with a “summer camp” followed by an abbreviated 60-game regular season schedule that confined teams to their home regions but did not isolate players from their families or society until the playoffs. Those were conducted in a few host cities, with the final National League championship series and the World Series in Arlington, Texas.
After the Rays eliminated the Yankees from this season’s playoffs, my mother decided to revert to her Brooklyn roots and cheer for a Dodgers championship. Naturally, I took the opposite approach and rooted for the Rays. This worked out about as well as it usually does for me. You’re welcome, Dodgers fans.
This being 2020, there was bound to be more drama even after the World Series was over. That drama arrived by way of COVID-19. Of course.
After the seventh inning of what proved to be the final game on Tuesday night, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner mysteriously disappeared from the lineup and the dugout. Broadcasters only learned, and revealed, that Turner had tested positive for COVID-19 after the Dodgers won.
Yet, oddly, Turner returned to the field – and at one point removed his mask – to join his teammates in celebrating their victory. He will no doubt draw a lot of criticism for that, as will baseball management for letting it happen.
If the Dodgers had lost Tuesday’s game, another would have been needed last night to crown a champion. Nobody knows, given Turner’s surprise positive test, whether that game would have happened, or who would have played in it if it did. There certainly would be a lot of questions about how Turner contracted the virus at the end of a long postseason in which he was supposed to be isolated in a hotel with his teammates whenever they were not together on the field or in the clubhouse. It would have been a chaotic end to a crazy season.
What happened here in the United States has been mirrored by sports organizations around the world. Team sports such as soccer and cricket, and individual sports like golf and tennis, have all found ways to resume competition. Life must go on, even amid a deadly pandemic.
That is important for all of us, and especially for an isolated elderly woman I know in New Jersey. As I said, this is a thank-you note to everyone who made this summer more tolerable for her.
So now we go back to the baseball off-season, which I always dread on my mother’s behalf. With her senior citizens center shut down, this off-season will be the hardest one yet. Fortunately, the Yankees continue to broadcast their own games on their YES network, and those will have to suffice. (As a bonus, the Yankees nearly always win.) In her pandemic desperation, my mother has even resorted to rooting for the Mets. They usually win their reruns, too.
In real life as in Dodgers lore, we always have next year. We’ll wait for spring, and hope baseball – and that senior citizens bus – return with the green grass.