With no star-spangled fireworks and no big crowd buzz on the Fourth of July, the crack of a ball off the bat sounded lonely echoing off empty seats in the ballpark on Blake Street.
Baseball was back in LoDo, where the Rockies opened summer camp on Saturday. But a return to normalcy? Not even close. We’ve got a long road back to normal.
Colorado players walked on the field for batting practice wearing masks. As infielders took grounders, the ball carefully deposited in a bag after every throw to first base, dreams of playing in the World Series took a backseat to something far more basic in these COVID-19 times: staying healthy.
“You realize people are dying from this every day. And they still don’t know what the long-term effects are of this coronavirus. It’s kind of scary,” Rockies catcher Tony Wolters said.
At last count, more than 130,000 Americans have died during a pandemic that still isn’t being taken seriously by far too many people in far too many places across this country. “This thing is nothing to mess with,” said Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who knows family friends back in Texas who have been stricken and recovered from the virus.
While it will be sweet to see Nolan Arenado blast a two-run homer off Clayton Kershaw, maybe the best service baseball can provide in 2020 is remind us that if we want to see a World Series champ crowned this autumn or anything close to normalcy during the remainder of this calendar year, it’s going to require far more teamwork than the country has shown in the battle against this virus.
If we’re still blind to the fact there won’t be anything normal about this major-league season, here’s another clue: During games, while working behind the plate in the heat of summer, Wolters hopes to wear a protective mask beneath all his other catching gear.
“I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.
If Wolters can wear a mask to his sweaty, dirty job, what’s your excuse not to wear one, whether you’re a house-painter, a pitcher or the president of the United States?
Story grew up with a bat and glove. He’s learning to make the mask a standard part of his uniform and never go anywhere without it. “The new norm is to have it in your back pocket,” Story said.
The Fourth of July is a celebration of baseball and BBQ, not to mention red, white and true blue freedom. But freedom requires sacrifice, putting the “we” before the “me.”
“We all have to understand that this (pandemic) thing is bigger than any of us,” said Rockies relief pitcher Scott Oberg, who elected to play ball despite a personal medical history of autoimmune disease. “If it’s a little bit of an inconvenience for me to wear a mask to protect somebody else, I’m going to do that. We all kind of have to take ourselves out of the equation a little bit, kind of take our egos out of it.”
The weirdness of the weirdest Fourth of July ever at Coors Field began for me at the front gate, when a security guard pointed a thermometer like a gun at my forehead and uttered the last words anyone wants to hear in these crazy coronavirus times: “Your temperature is running a little high.”
Well, there’s nothing like a little COVID paranoia to spike the blood pressure on a summer morning.
But after removing my cap and taking two deep breaths, a second temperature reading that fell within safety parameters allowed me admittance to the Coors press box, where I saw Denver Post colleague Patrick Saunders, as well as fine baseball journalists Nick Groke and Thomas Harding, for the first time since way back on March 13, when coronavirus shut down baseball and sent us scurrying from spring training in Arizona.
Please don’t tell Patrick, Nick or Thomas, but I missed their bad puns and advanced metrics, maybe in the way you’ve missed hugging your grandma or bragging about your fantasy team with co-workers at the office. It’s all the small things we took for granted that this pandemic has taken away, like singing loudly off key to the lyrics of “Your Love” when Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon steps into the batter’s box.
After recently being diagnosed with COVID-19, Chuck Nazty has not yet been cleared to join his teammates at summer camp. “Hearing Chuck got it made me pretty sad,” Wolters said.
Want to stop the spread of sadness? Wear a mask.
Want sports and your freedom back? Wear a mask.
Care about your neighbor? Wear a mask.
On this Fourth of July, the Rockies got back to work, showing the new definition of America patriotism:
Real men wear masks.