The slog from the first temperature check to opening day, a rigorous physical, economic and psychological gauntlet that is The COVID Kilometer, got off its feet for just a moment Tuesday afternoon.
Then the protocols were less intrusive, the long-stemmed swabs not as invasive, the jittery first steps yesterday’s gripe. They were, all of them, for a breezy moment that braved 20 minutes, merely the necessary steps to a baseball season that surely will be a good time and quite possibly, as you’ll learn, historic.
In case that message hadn’t yet been shouted from the mezzanines of enough ghostly ballparks (or had been lost in practices canceled on account of mail), New York Mets star Pete Alonso showed up to his conference call with reporters two minutes early.
The scuttlebutt among some scouts, the suspicion among enough players, the view from 6 feet without a mask, is that a season of even 60 games is a long shot. Maybe that’s the cynic’s interpretation from inside a virus-weary nation, in which the way to self-preservation is to feel wholly exposed. They don’t trust the politicians to get this right. They don’t trust the team owners to endure the risk of two months of paychecks against a payoff — playoff baseball and its revenue — that might not come. They don’t trust the league to keep them healthy. They don’t trust the public to choke off the urge to sit on a barstool.
That’s the dangerous, jaundiced journey to game one.
Except for Pete. The man is totally freakin’ amped for ball. If you are having trouble separating the loud pessimism from the tiny glow of hopefulness for baseball, for those few months of kick-in-the-pants television programming and fantasy standings between virus updates, Pete is your guy.
In his tiny box on the Zoom grid, he wore a bright orange T-shirt. His mask was holstered under his chin. He waved his hands. He laughed. He called people by name without having to read them first. The season doesn’t start for two weeks and already he’s watching the first home run fly.
“Oh, I’m, I’m, I’m geeked up to play,” said the man who hit 53 home runs last season and was the National League’s Rookie of the Year. “Ultimately I know that I’m not the only one that feels this way. Yes, all of us are baseball players. That is our job. But, before we were baseball players we were fans of the game of baseball. And I feel like all of us just love the game. Yes, there’s some extra steps we have to take, but this is something I’m really passionate about. … I’m so amped up. I’m so excited to play.
“I know that not only us in the organization are excited to play, but I know that there’s a ton of people around the country, around the world, that are excited to have baseball back. And, it’s awesome. This is awesome. It’s a very historical season. There’s no season that has been like this before. Right now, in a weird way, we’re part of history. It’s different, for sure. It’s not ideal. But I’m just so happy — so, so happy — that we’re finally back and we’re playing baseball.”
Sixty games? No problem. Labor unrest? No problem. Raging pandemic? Fine, kind of a problem. No people in the ballpark? No problem.
“Well, for me, I know that every single New York Mets fan is going to be watching at home,” he said. “I mean, every time we play a game, yes, there’s people in the stands. Whether it be a packed house or a slow midweek game, there’s still so many other people that are watching at home. Like, you can have hundreds of thousands of people, putting a smile on their face every single night. And now, I think we’re going to be one of the first sports back, and I’m just so excited because every time Jake [deGrom] goes out there and strikes out the side or Mike [Conforto] or J.D. [Davis] or Nimms [Brandon Nimmo] makes a diving play, or every time Ces [Yoenis Cespedes], when he hits a go-ahead home run, that’s going to make so many people happy. I feel like right now, as a whole, people need something to lean on, to help cope. I’m really excited that we’re going to be able to give back and put smiles on some fans’ faces and play the game we love.”
Surely there are many others who feel the same way. The news cycle will get around to them eventually. When club owners and players were kicking each other in the groin for two months, when the inevitable positive tests arrived by the handful, when good players decided to stay home and others admitted their hearts might not be in it, the sounds of discontent drowned out the laughter.
So Josh Donaldson could start talking about hitting again and you don’t want him to ever stop, and Rich Hill could talk about “our” recovery from surgery and begin the list with his wife and son, and Shohei Ohtani could talk about resuming his career as the most interesting man in baseball, and what was heard above them all were the musings of apprehension.
That’s fair. It’s scary out there. But maybe it’ll work. Maybe enough players will show up and stay healthy to make the season presentable. Maybe the games will brighten our days after all. Maybe the second wave, the one that threatens October, will be felled by the reality of the first wave.
Maybe Pete can just narrate the whole thing.
“So, the first day I was allowed to come back on the field,” he recalled, “I walked on to my position at first base and, it was weird, I just like put my hands on the ground to feel the dirt, to make sure it’s real. Just being here and being able to play baseball, do my job, I found such a much higher appreciation for this game, for this opportunity. I loved what I do before, but now with this hiatus and everything that’s going on, for me, I don’t know, I have this love affair for baseball and it’s just made my love for it grow even more. I love the game. It means so much to me. I feel like I’m not the only one who feels that way. Baseball is so much more than a sport. Not just to us players and the teams, but for so many other fans of baseball around the world. So, it’s tremendous. Tremendous to be back. ... This 60-game season, I’m so, so prepared for this.”
When his time was up and he was to be replaced in his tiny box by someone else, Pete stood up and had one final thought. He leaned into the microphone and said, “Are you guys happy to be back? I know it’s weird, but are you guys happy to be back?”
Muted, a few dozen reporters raised their thumbs.
“Awesome!” he said.
More from Yahoo Sports: