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New Rockies reliever Daniel Bard pitches the 8th in an intrasquad game at an empty Coors Field as the team tunes up for Friday's Opening Day. (Photo courtesy of the Colorado Rockies) 

Last weekend I watched a pick-up game at 20th and Blake in lower downtown Denver, and it reminded me of a game Jack Kerouac wrote about some 63 years earlier on a sandlot just blocks away at 23rd and Welton.

“A great eager crowd roared at every play,” Kerouac wrote in the journal that became “On The Road.” “The strange young heroes, of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, Indian, were performing with utter seriousness. They were just sandlot kids in uniform, while I, in my college days, with my ‘white ambitions,’ had to be a professional-type athlete. I hated myself thinking of it. Never in my life had I been innocent enough to play ball this way before all the families and girls of the neighborhood.”

The tables seemed turned 63 years later with the game I viewed featuring a crowd of eight watching a preamble to the Rockies Opening Day game, slated for Friday in Dallas against the Texas Rangers in an empty new ballpark destined to play ball before perpetually closed gates.

“The crack of the bat is really loud,” Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado said after the Rockies won an exhibition game 5-1 over the Rangers Tuesday night in an eerily silent ballpark looking like the day after a neutron bomb fell, vaporizing all crowds while leaving vacant ballparks as monuments in green.

“What’s going on, the pandemic, it’s been pretty sad and disappointing,” Arenado told the Daily Planet earlier in the three-week MLB Summer Camp before the season’s Friday night opener. “Hopefully we can bring some happiness with baseball, because I know a lot of people love baseball, especially here in Colorado.  There’s a lot of negativity around our country right now, and we just got to be positive and preach love and respect. That’s something we can do. At the end of the day, it’s about being a good example to the kids, the younger generation, and going about it right the way. A lot of people haven’t been going about it the right way.”

While baseball has often been called on to “bring some happiness” at times of national tragedy, offering the comfort of normalcy, the ask this year is for something different, something more. Coming back in an environment with the COVID-19 pandemic picking up steam is challenging enough, but players are often wrestling with protests about racial justice bringing society to a tipping point and demanding models of leadership to chart a new course.

 

PENNANT FEVER

The Rockies stand in a 30-way tie for first on Thursday, an improvement over their status a year ago, when they were 19 games off the pace with 60 games remaining in the 162-game season. 

This season’s four-month timeout saw four-time All-Star Charlie Blackmon diagnosed with the coronavirus while working out at Coors Field before Summer Camp got off the ground, sidelining him for two weeks in an already too short summer.

“I wasn't worried,” Blackmon told the Planet upon his return. “I felt sick. It was nothing compared to me having the flu. Looking back at it, I wish I’d gotten this months ago and felt crappy for a day and a half and then gone on with it and lived the rest of my life and not tried to avoid it by canceling everything in the country. But that’s only based on my experience. It can be much more serious for everyone else.” 

Blackmon seems to be going out of his way to respect the health protocols, extremely conscious of the devastating experience others have had after contracting the virus, including over 140,000 deaths from the nearly four million Americans to test positive for the virus so far.

He barely missed a beat upon his return, jumping into the leadoff spot and taking the field in right. He went 2-for-3 with a walk, a homer and two RBIs, leaving little doubt about his ability to return in stride.  He and Arenado — and virtually every Rockie in uniform — are committed to showing up strong, staying healthy and making a legitimate bid for a World Series title.

“Hopefully, other people that get sick will bounce back like I did,” Blackmon said. “I have complete confidence that I am going to be 100 percent recovered and not have any lasting effects. It’s a very real, very dangerous virus for some people, and I'm lucky that it didn't affect me that bad. If I were to explain this experience in terms of the setbacks that I’ve had in my life, this is a minor glitch, a minor speed bump. It’s not something that is going to throw me off. It’s not something that I was scared of or that I’ll be scared of for any of the guys in this locker room. I do think we’ll be as safe as we can and try not to get it, but honestly, we went through a whole lot of trouble and did a lot of changing of our life and our country for something that wasn’t that bad — in my experience. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be more serious for other people and that it hasn’t been more serious for other people.”

 

SAFE AT HOME

The other pandemic — that of systemic racism — may hit even closer to home. Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, whose $15 million salary is fourth highest on the club, decided to opt-out for the season, posting a nine-page Instagram post about the challenges he’s faced as a bi-racial man in baseball.

"The image of officer Derek Chauvin's knee on the neck of George Floyd, the gruesome murder of a Black man in the street at the hands of a police officer, broke my coping mechanism,” Desmond wrote.

He recalled a recent trip to his seemingly abandoned old Little League field in Sarasota, Florida, and described being one of two African American players on his high school team, listening in stunned silence as they chanted “White Power” before each game. 

“Think about it — right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war,” Desmond wrote.  “We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses, we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes, or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down.  We’ve got one African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

“With a pregnant wife and four young children with lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now. Home for my wife, Chelsey. Home to help. Home to guide. Home to answer my three older boys’ questions about Coronavirus and Civil Rights and life. Home to be their Dad.”

So while our country is clearly facing a reckoning, baseball is being asked to set the tone for necessary change while providing a public face for the response to racial injustice. It’s taken an unforgiveable eternity for professional sports to catch up with Colin Kaepernick, but there is finally movement to match the moment.

 

TELLING A STORY

Enter All-Star shortstop Trevor Story, who may be the emerging clubhouse leader the Rockies need in these times. Along with Desmond, Story has been perhaps the most vocal among the Rockies in speaking out publicly about the crisis in our country, finding his voice as a team leader at a unique cultural crossroads.

“If you’re doing something for someone else, then I think you’ll do a better job,” Story said of his approach to the health pandemic, but it could just as well serve as his call to action when it comes to civil rights.

“It certainly does put things into perspective, what we’re going through as a country. You kind of realize that sports, and baseball — your job — is probably not as important as you think it is. 

“I want to be a person that helps and changes for the better. It’s a tough thing to address, it’s not easy, and it’s not comfortable right now, but I think that’s where we need to be.”

For generations, up-and-coming baseball prospects have been trained to avoid uncomfortable conversations and keep distance between themselves and the topics of the day. Players like Story are ready to break with a precedent that has served nothing but sustaining the status quo.

“After George Floyd’s murder, that’s all I could think about for days and days,” Story said on the July 4opening of Summer Camp. “I couldn’t sleep. It bothered me to my core. I felt the need to say something, and I did, but that’s not enough.  We need action. We need to go forth with some change.”

Story’s background gave him a healthy sense of empathy and a perspective beyond the typical bubble of family, school and sports. His father was a firefighter and paramedic and his mother ran a nonprofit community food bank in Irving, Texas, two selfless jobs, as Story describes them.

“We’re trying to leave this world a better place than when we came into it,” he said of the way his parents raised him and his brother. “You can’t do that by just sitting back. You have to act, you have to talk about things and have conversations that aren’t comfortable, go out there and help people, volunteer, and engage in different activities that that can cause change in your community.”

There may be nothing of greater consequence that baseball can accomplish in this Petri dish of a season, and if Story’s attitude prevails over the course of the next two or three months, this will be as remarkable a season as it already is unusual.