Americans Need Baseball, Now More Than Ever

How professional sports can ease social distancing.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

What a beautiful and strange social experiment this will be.

A species built on connectivity and interaction is now being asked to forestall this lifeblood of mental and physical balance for at least two weeks with possible social distancing requests for the next few months. The precaution of “avoid gatherings” is synonymous with asking birds not to fly or fish not to swim. 

What are we going to do if we can’t congregate? 

Coping is the ability to change one’s cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage psychological stress. Not all coping strategies are created equally; drowning one’s sorrows in alcohol is, as you guessed, a maladaptive coping strategy. The healthier options, the adaptive strategies, are activities that can reduce stress: exercise, relaxation, and eating healthy, to name a few [1].

There’s also research showing that distraction can serve as an adaptive coping strategy, as long as the distraction is not used to completely avoid or ignore the current situation [2]. A distraction for a brief period (say, nine innings or so) has been shown to provide positive relief from a painful situation—but only with the intention of returning to face the music [3].

Major League Baseball, along with other sports, isn’t taking any chances. All four of the major professional American sports leagues have been suspended indefinitely to enhance social distancing and slow the spread of coronavirus. That, of course, is priority number one.

But there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be made about the current cancellation of the baseball season. Professional sports do not help crops grow, parcels ship, or fix broken legs, but they possess a powerful presence in our everyday lives. 

During stretches of non-pandemic periods of human existence, sports provide a necessary distraction—a breath of departure from death and taxes. So, a research-based suggestion: Gently, carefully, with gloved-hands, masks, and sanitizer, bring back baseball.

This isn’t the first time

The year 1918 was a helluva time, for both the good (final year of World War I) and the bad (spread of one of the deadliest outbreaks in human history, the Spanish Flu). The 1918 baseball season was played but ended a month early (in September), due to the American participation in World War I. 

By a stroke of luck, this caused the baseball season to miss the worst of the Spanish Flu outbreak, which would go on to kill over 675,000 Americans, including a handful of major league baseball players

Research strongly supports the action of quarantining as a method for slowing the rate of viral expansion and stemming the tide of infirmed persons needing medical attention. But while biologically, this might be best practice, socially, this is a whole other ballgame. With current estimates of quarantining being anywhere from a few weeks to five months, we’re looking at extended periods of isolation and catatonic boredom. Not immediately, but in time: Please, bring back baseball. 

A modest proposal

The worst of the pandemic needs to pass, speculatively anywhere from a few months to maybe longer, depending in large part on our abilities to socially distance. Certainly, playing without fans is a must, but playing a non-contact sport with the necessary precautions could actually work. 

Constant screening and precautions at every stage is a must, not just for the players and coaching staff, but also for the skeleton crew of stadium operators, film crews, announcers, and administrative personnel. Private cars, jets, and hotel rooms are also a must, but they won’t be in short supply. 

The locker room is off-limits, players should be dressed and ready to go by the time they arrive; they can shower at home or at the hotel. Screen players pre-boarding the plane and entering the stadium; if any player tests positive for the virus, he’s quarantined locally. 

Rinse, wash, and repeat for every game.

Play shots of people at home enjoying watching the game both during the live broadcast, as well as on jumbotrons, so that players can feel the sense of playing in front of a large audience. Hell, even pipe in the sounds of people cheering at home throughout the empty stadium. 

There’s only so much Netflix

Roberts and Smith (2020) put forth a critical question in their book War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War that echoes today’s landscape, “Sports during a time of national crisis gives the illusion of normality, and we always ask ourselves, ‘Should we cancel everything or not?’” We should, for now. 

Perhaps Eno Sarris, baseball writer for The Athletic, put it best:

“A lot of times when there’s something difficult going on internationally, or nationally, we turn to sports to not think about it, to unify, to move on. There’s something about the way sports seemed to have been played forever.”

Sports make life worth living, an adaptive coping mechanism as a momentary distraction. Given the tone of recent events, this may seem capricious, but the aim here is not to be negligent or illogical. The heart, in many ways, is the most important component to fighting doubt, disease, and fear, and we’re going to need it—a moral uplift for the lonely American soul.

References

[1] DeLongis A., Hotlzman S. Coping in context: The role of stress, social support and personality in coping. Journal of Personality. 2005;73(6):124.

[2] Wolgast, M., Lundh, L. Is Distraction an Adaptive or Maladaptive Strategy for Emotion Regulation? A Person-Oriented Approach. J Psychopathol Behav Assess 39, 117–127 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10862-016-9570-x

[3] Gratz, K. L., & Tull, M. T. (2011). Extending research on the utility of an adjunctive emotion regulation group therapy for deliberate self-harm among women with borderline personality pathology. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 2, 316–326.

[4] Roberts, R. & Smith, J. (2020). War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War. Basic Books.