I found the man they call McCovey Cove Dave, as one would expect, kayaking in McCovey Cove, wearing an orange hoodie with “DAVE” printed on it.
The inlet, unofficially named, is part of San Francisco Bay and just a few feet behind the field at Oracle Park, home of the Giants. Dave (Edlund, 64), along with a number of lesser-known rivals, spend match after match here, bubbling in the water and waiting for the rare occasions when a home run has been hit hard enough to fly over the cheap seats – and in their direction .
Of the 136 boundary-challenging balls that land in the water since this stadium opened in 2000, Edlund says he has taken 42 of them. No one else comes close. A retired technical worker, Edlund, says that he uses data analysis, and predicts when and where the ball can come splashing down based on the jug, the batter, even the temperature in the night air. If both layers have a left-handed starter jug - forget it. Edlund stays at home. “It’s a very number-oriented game,” he says of the success. “I also have the fastest kayak.”
Curious as Edlund’s approach is, the closest he or any Giants fan comes to the action in the foreseeable future. It’s actually as close as most sports fans can get to their teams, whether it’s basketball, football or any number of elite sports competitions. Covid-19 has closed its doors. It deprives us of one of the few reliable community collections left in our modern world.
The fact that there are still baseball games at all is the result of intense deliberations, and not without some ugly disputes about how much players will be paid. It was decided that the Major League Baseball season 2020 would consist of a reduced schedule for 60 games, with less travel and in some cases fewer rounds to limit players’ fatigue. It began in July, four months later than usual.
Unlike other sports such as basketball, MLB chose not to insist that players live in a “bubble”, cut off from the outside world. Instead, strict rules would be put in place to reduce the risk: no spitting, for one, or high fives. And no fans.
“It was awful, it was awful,” said Mike Krukow, a veteran broadcaster for the Giants, when I asked him how he felt back in the spring, when pre-season training was suspended indefinitely, casting all this year’s competition in doubt. “It was part of our culture that we had taken for granted for so many years. Now it was taken from us, we wounded after that. ”
Ever since the formalization of the sport – which in its earliest days was partly developed as a revolt against cricket and the people who played it – America has never had to suffer a year without big league baseball.
There have been disturbances, for sure. In 1994, a labor dispute cut the season. The Spanish flu in 1918 saw several high-profile players fall ill and die; Babe Ruth, the sport’s most venerable player, is said to have been bedridden with a fever of more than 40 ° C, before starting full recovery.
But it was in 1942 that a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to symbolize the link between America’s “national pastime” and national well-being. “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” the president wrote, responding to the league commissioner, who had asked if the season would continue with 500 top players recruited for the war effort.
Decades later, in the same spirit, President George W Bush would endure what he described as “the most nervous moment of my presidency.” In a city hit by attacks on the World Trade Center just over a month earlier, Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of this year’s World Series – the first in the series to be played at Yankee Stadium.
Restrained by the bulletproof vest under the New York Fire Department jacket, the president feared throwing a misleading pitch – or worse, one that bubbled up pathetic cards. The former little ligator need not have worried. The bullet flew from the mound into the prisoner’s mitten, and the president went off the stack to “USA! USA! “The symbolism was high and proud: how much America had changed, baseball was still baseball, and life would go on.
Game day in San Francisco Oracle Park, I walk along a promenade I have been down many times before, where the air usually buzzes with anticipation and is thick with the stench of garlic fries – an aroma that is only tolerated by the eater.
Today, however, it is quiet enough to hear the players interact with each other as they warm up on the field. The only smell to talk about, this summer in California in 2020, is the unhealthy fire smoke that has blown in from the north.
While fans are excluded, exceptions have been made for half a dozen baseball writers who cover the giants’ every move. They are kept strictly away from players and staff, and also a good distance from each other.
This is a baseball game that lacks most of the usual tomfoolery: no kissing camera, no free T-shirts bazookaed in the crowd, and absolutely no bad advice on marriage. Even the seventh inning – a traditional little song and a dance to loosen your legs and bring the scams to life – takes place only briefly. In other words, Covid-19 baseball contains few of the things that this English sports fan used to turn up his nose. Naturally, I suddenly find that I miss every bit of it.
It does not help the fact that over 12,000 cardboard cutouts of fans around me are squeezed into the empty seats. Every so often, one of the quiet, smiling faces is beheaded by a stray ugly ball that spins off a bat and into the stands.
Carvings and journalists only see the homecoming all night. Arizona’s David Peralta smashed it to the center-right field, but unfortunately not quite hard or right enough to reach McCovey Cove.
Baseball is not the most popular sports in America – it’s American football, according to a Gallup poll, whose latest data suggests that the popularity of baseball is declining. Internationally, despite a tour program that takes MLB abroad, baseball has not seen the same levels of recognition as the NBA, supercharged in the 90s by Michael Jordan, or the NFL, with the recent all-out attack on London and elsewhere .
Some of it can be attributed to the fact that outsiders were put off by the American exceptionality that was shown, and which was most clearly demonstrated by the rather ridiculous “World Series” title for an almost exclusively American competition. This title became especially boring this year after it was announced that the Toronto Blue Jays, the only non-American team in the league, would be forced to base themselves in Buffalo, New York. The Canadian government had raised concerns about teams continuously crossing the border into their own country, one that had made great strides against Covid-19, from one that had absolutely not done so.
As I write this, we are now in the 2020 post season, or playoffs, and a stage that the Giants did not quite manage. For the league as a whole, however, reaching this point can be seen as a triumph. The league’s completion against the odds was marked by 21-year-old Juan Soto from the Washington Nationals, who missed the opening weekend due to a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, but ended the regular season as the league’s best result.
Such statistics may be seen as irregularities, forever starring with “2020”. In any case, the 2020 season will enter the history books along with 1918, 1942 and 2001 – a year when Americans once again relied on their trusted friend.
Dave Lee is FT’s San Francisco correspondent
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