Baseball seeks its place in a tumultuous world as Mookie Betts, Dodgers open 2020 with a win

LOS ANGELES — More than anything, you’ll have to believe it has a purpose. Doesn’t have to be anything grand. Doesn’t even have to pretend to be. Just that it’s the right thing to do for now, for a few hours today. That there’s a place for it, the same place we put anything anymore that won’t fit properly in the real world. That maybe seems meaningless, a little dopey, when held up against the rest of today.

If you’ve signed up for baseball in 2020, if you’ve given in to it even a little, you probably know that place. It’s where you keep a lot of the stuff that seemed important only four or five months ago, that you’ve decided probably isn’t, not today. That doesn’t make it entirely worthless either. It simply gives it a different place.

In that way, then, a well-lit and otherwise droopy Dodger Stadium seemed the perfect place for baseball Thursday night. No brake lights in the parking lots late. The background mountains got dark fast and stayed that way. The canned crowd noise sounded like canned crowd noise, like the purpose was not to dress up the game but to cover for it. The place didn’t smell like beer or hot dogs or pretzels, didn’t tremble during the introductions of Mookie Betts or Cody Bellinger or the felled Clayton Kershaw, didn’t go stony over a shimmying Johnny Cueto, didn’t so much as hold its breath when the late innings arrived and the mighty Dodgers hadn’t yet put away this shadow of the San Francisco Giants. Soon enough, as it turned out.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Cody Bellinger, left, and Max Muncy, right, put their hands on Mookie Betts during the national anthem prior to an opening day baseball game Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Here, baseball seemed to know its place. There’d be a final score (8-1, Dodgers), a winner and a loser. There’d be a mark in the standings. There’d be 65 days left in a season that came along reluctantly and will remain so. They’d try again tomorrow and then, if it still makes sense, the next day, too.

They play in the gaps between test results. Or they’re ordered off.

“This is a day that, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t a hundred percent certain we were gonna see,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “The fact we’re here, the sacrifices and choices and responsibility that players across the league have taken to ensure we’re getting to this opening day, is unbelievable.”

They play when the morning paper is filled with bad news. Two entire rosters and their coaching staffs knelt in a long, loose arc prior to the national anthem. Nine players and a manager remained prone during the anthem itself. Max Muncy and Bellinger rested their hands on the shoulders of a kneeling Betts, the only Black player in the starting lineup and the son of a Vietnam veteran.

California had more deaths from the coronavirus Wednesday than on any other day. The state has recorded more than 400,000 cases, most in the nation. Every day seems a bit scarier than the last.

What could distract from that? From any of it? Not baseball. Not anything. These are the times. They change people. They move people. One man in that pregame ceremony stood between Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Betts. Not that long ago, Roberts, son of a Black Marine, resisted the movement, more so the act that represented that movement, that so many now hope will help reshape America’s soul. He said Thursday he’d come to understand what a well-timed, well-intended knee in the dirt represents.

“I’m always trying to evolve and learn, be educated,” he said. “I’ve realize that standing at attention, it’s not mutually exclusive to your thoughts on social justice and police brutality and things that Colin Kaepernick [and Bruce Maxwell] felt. And as I’ve learned, I just believe you’re not trying to disrespect the soldiers, men and women that serve our country and lay their lives on the line every single day. My father included.”

He would of course address the late scratch of Kershaw, replaced by the gangly and frond-topped Dustin May, the club’s first rookie starter on opening day since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. And he would then steer the National League’s favorite into the first of 60 games, into a two- or three-month exercise that would determine a champion. A few hours earlier, the Washington Nationals, who’d eliminated the Dodgers last October and then became World Series champions, announced outfielder Juan Soto had tested positive for the virus. Somebody else would play left field.

In case anyone would mistake this season, such as it is, for something other than a minute-to-minute endeavor, there it was.

Hours later, Dodgers in home white uniforms snaked from the dugout steps to second base, “I Love L.A.” echoing off those dark mountains, one day into this thing. The baseball was OK, good enough, and certainly better than no baseball. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe enough of them will stay healthy and the bad news will turn and the people will come out to introduce themselves to Mookie Betts, and say hello again to the rest.

Meantime, baseball has its place here, by itself, up on a hill just outside of town. It seems about right.

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