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Looking Back on Baseball’s Silent Season

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Otis Brown III is a jazz drummer and a Blue Note recording artist. Both of his sons are serious players: “We’ve become a baseball family in every sense of the word,” Brown said through laughter. His younger son, Josiah, is rising up through the rigorous ranking systems and plays for the renowned baseball program of Delbarton School, a private all-boys Catholic school in Morristown, N.J. But this summer, instead of crisscrossing the country for tournaments and showcases, Brown trained at home in New Jersey. “I’m glad for this little window we had, a sense of normalcy and being able to see some baseball games,” his father said. “It’s meant a lot to us. And then, too, to be able to see baseball games in this time where players are speaking out about social issues.”

“Such a small portion of the league is African-American players, so I for one never thought that anything like Black Lives Matter or mentioning George Floyd’s name or things of that nature would ever make its way into Major League Baseball, and on the scale like it has now,” he continued. “You know, where players are like, ‘I’m not gonna play today,’ and their teammates are like, ‘OK, we’re not gonna play as a team.’”

“Mookie Betts speaking about it — he’s probably neck and neck with Trout for the best player in baseball — and him taking a knee in Major League Baseball was unbelievable to me,” Brown said. “I was just like, ‘I never thought I would see anything like this.’”

It’s October. The regular season came and went like a meek note squeezed out of an accordion. I watched games over these short summer months with great sadness. Eventually, I turned the volume off. The cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats behind home plate were strange enough without all the artificial fan noise being pumped through the broadcast with a cold relentlessness that only an algorithm could love. The game seemed diminished without an audience and without sound in a way that other sports simply do not. Everything about baseball that transcends baseball is connected to the crowd: The game’s most famous song is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; “Casey at the Bat” is about Mudville, not Casey; and the best poem on baseball is William Carlos Williams’s “The Crowd at the Ballgame”:

The crowd at the ball game

is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness

which delights them —

One of baseball’s most iconic moments is one of stillness, when Lou Gehrig tells the crowd at Yankee Stadium how lucky he was to be standing before them, two years before A.L.S. would take his life. The glory of Jackie Robinson was that the crowd had to learn to behave itself, get over it and get on with watching him compete — the question was never whether he was good enough to play with whites; it was whether the whites could get their act together, be a little less racist and sit in a seat while a Black man played baseball. The game changed irrevocably when the crowd changed slightly.

And so, I ask you again: Is the game really the same game without people there to see the free and easy White Sox; the mad scientist Trevor Bauer; the living, breathing fun zone that is Fernando Tatis Jr.; the time bandit Nelson Cruz; the endlessly sequestered excellence of Mike Trout? What came of them?

In a typical season, the story would have been the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series. They were a very good team from start to finish; they lived on the timely home run; they have a stable of fairly anonymous, interchangeable, hard-throwing pitchers; they had a rookie play out of his mind when it mattered most. Entering the playoffs, they had a record that made them one of the favorites, and the name on their jersey made them one of the underdogs. They are contemporary baseball excellence straight from central casting: the output of calculations from an office and grit from minor-league fields. They are exciting and dull. And they may have saved Major League Baseball from a nightmare scenario.

Because unlike the Nationals, the Houston Astros returned to the playoffs this year. They limped into the postseason with more losses than wins, taking advantage of the fact that the league expanded the playoff format from five teams per league to eight. Taking advantage has been the Astros’ M.O. over recent years: In January, Major League Baseball concluded an investigation that found Houston guilty of a sign-stealing scheme during the 2017 season in which the team ended up winning the World Series. No players were punished. Rumors persisted that the Astros continued to cheat well after the 2017 season, which they have denied. No one, aside from their fans, seemed interested in a redemption tour for a team that never sought redemption, a team that preened and snarled their way to an everlasting ignominy they had worked hard to earn. According to Sports Media Watch, Game 7 of the Astros-Rays A.L.C.S. was “easily the lowest rated and least watched Game 7 in M.L.B. history.”

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