That photograph has existed for a century, given that it was taken during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 near the end of World War I. But the COVID-19 global pandemic that’s enveloped our planet this winter and spring has made this photo one of the defining images for baseball fans eager not only for a return to normalcy — in life, in government, in the economy, in health care — but also in the sport they so dearly miss.
Baseball can continue, but should it, and with what precautions?
That’s why I’ve watched snippets of this recently:
It’s video of a Korean-league team, the Lotte Giants, playing an intra-squad scrimmage last week. Social-distancing requirements kept the stands empty, which is weird enough. (The scrimmage was live-streamed online, though.) And nearly all of the Giants, save for pitchers and catchers, played while wearing the tell-tale face masks designed as protection from the virus. The players mostly wore white masks like those in medical settings; the base umpires’ masks were black.
Pitchers went mask-less because they were allowed to lick their fingers to better grip the baseball. Catchers and the home-plate umpire didn’t have to wear a face mask because they already wore face masks — though for a different type of protection. At least one of the Giants eschewed a face mask and wore a neck gaiter pulled up over his mouth. I’m not sure that’s adequate protection during a pandemic, but he got away with it nonetheless.
The video is more surreal than odd, to be honest. A sign of our immediate future, perhaps. Asian culture is more accepting, if not demanding, of the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of disease. But it is nonetheless unsettling to see players donning face masks for a baseball game, time spent essentially in recreation while also risking public health. It also begs the question: Would professional players in the United States do that when Major League Baseball returns? Better yet, should they?
To that last question, we probably know the answer.