Virus Outbreak Empty Ballparks Baseball

Yankee Stadium in New York is among the ballparks across the country that remain closed because of COVID-19 restrictions.

What’s past is history, except when it’s fantasy. “Star Trek” fans know that we now are five years into the legendary career of baseball superstar Buck Bokai, who made his debut in 2015, then played for another 28 years and could have played another five. In another six years — 2026 — we’ll see Bokai break Joe DiMaggio’s seemingly unbreakable record of hitting in 56 straight games. At least that’s how the story is told in the 1990s “Star Trek” spinoff “Deep Space Nine,” where Capt. Benjamin Sisko is a devoted baseball fan.

There’s just one tiny problem: Baseball no longer exists in the 24th century, so Sisko’s fascination with baseball would be like someone today being an aficionado of a game that hasn’t been played since the 1700s. One episode introduced us to Bokai, who played for the fictional London Kings. That episode also tells us that baseball died after the 2042 season. Bokai’s walk-off grand slam won the World Series, but only 300 people were there to see it.

“Nobody seemed to have time for us anymore,” Bokai lamented. “I could’ve played five more years if they hadn’t killed the game.”

“Star Trek” correctly has predicted the future more times than we realize. Flip communicators? Star Trek was so far ahead that it’s now behind — that’s how cellphones used to be. Universal translators? Hello, Google Translate. Replicators? 3D printers. Holograms? We’ve got virtual reality. Voice-activated computers? Hey, Alexa. Was “Star Trek” also right in predicting the death of baseball? We hope not, but the writers of those “Deep Space Nine” episodes are looking more and more prescient — except that history might record 2020 as the year baseball died, not 2042.

We’re exaggerating, of course, but maybe not by much. Here’s what we see: Baseball could have been the first team sport (sorry, NASCAR) to get back in action after the pandemic shut everything down. It won’t be. Soccer will be, and that ought to terrify both baseball owners and the players union if they weren’t too busy arguing with each other over money.

The first team sport to get back in action will be the National Women’s Soccer League, which opens a one-month season June 27, with all those games played in empty stadiums in Utah. Maybe you’ve never heard of the National Women’s Soccer League, even though it’s been around since the 2013 season. You will. American sports fans cheered on the U.S. team during the Women’s World Cup in 2019 — American women are the best in their sport in the world. Being the first out of the gate — and on TV — in the pandemic summer of 2020 is a marketing windfall for that league. It might not generate World Cup-level hype, but for a few weeks it will be, quite literally, the only game in town.

Then Major League Soccer resumes play July 8 in Orlando, Fla. Baseball had a chance for a glorious return to play on the Fourth of July. Instead, it’s ceding the field to soccer. Maybe there’ll be a baseball season this year, maybe there won’t be. If there is, here’s what we see. This summer, baseball is going to have to compete with other sports in a way it never has before, and soccer’s not the only one to worry about. The National Hockey League hopes to resume play sometime in July, jumping straight to the playoffs. The National Basketball Association wants to tip off July 31. Those leagues will be playing high-stakes elimination games while baseball — if it’s playing — is muddling through regular-season games.

Now look at these dates: Baseball owners want to conclude the regular season by Sept. 27, because they want to wrap up the playoffs — their big moneymaker — by Oct. 31. That’s understandable in a normal year. The Athletic reports that the NHL might award the Stanley Cup as late as early October; the real goal is to do it before Canadian Thanksgiving on Oct. 12. Meanwhile if the NBA’s championship series goes to seven games, that game seven would be Oct. 12. That means the first round of baseball playoffs will get overshadowed by the climactic games in two other leagues.

Meanwhile, it looks like there won’t be any minor league baseball in the country this summer. Furthermore, baseball already has targeted up to 42 minor league teams for elimination, including the entire Appalachian League with the exception of the Pulaski Yankees. Hollywood writers don’t need to kill off baseball; it’s doing a good job of that on its own. The pandemic year of 2020 just forces the question — by putting baseball in competition with other sports in a way it never has faced before. Maybe baseball recovers, expands to new markets to make up for lost revenues and goes on to a glorious future. Or maybe 2020 simply hastens the demise so much that we never even get to those London Kings in the 2042 World Series.

Say it ain’t so, Buck.

— Adapted from The Roanoke Times

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