“What Are People For?” asked the farmer-poet Wendell Berry in the title essay of his 1990 collection that largely bemoaned industrial agriculture, mechanization, and the forced migration of millions of rural residents to urban areas in the name of progress and efficiency. The question rings through broad swaths of modern life, and will no doubt occupy the best minds of future generations as they grapple with the continued evolution of robotics and computerization and their effect on human consciousness and self-identity.
The question occurred to me Thursday night in a different context, though: beholding the “Opening Day” of the severely truncated 2020 baseball season that was like no other, ever.
Yes, two teams gathered in their finest new uniforms to do battle in a major league ballpark, but that was about where any similarities to baseball as we know it ended.
Like the old Buddhist koan about whether a tree falls in the forest if there’s no one to hear, can a game or concert, play or recital occur in any meaningful way without someone watching besides those involved in the production?
Never mind the rescheduling of Opening Day from early April to late July, the 60-game season rather than the traditional 162, the weirdly expanded post-season, the regionally based rather than national schedule, the various rules adjustments designed to speed things along.
Abominations all, but they were not what lent the surreal undercurrent to the proceedings the other night.
What my eyes and ears couldn’t seem to adjust to was the sea of 41,339 empty seats through the cavernous ballpark in Washington, D.C.
No crowd rumble of thousands of conversations between pitches and innings, no sudden roar accompanying the home team whacking a home run, no camera shots of a kid’s face dwarfed by cotton candy, no smooching couples, no sleeping infants sprawled across Dad’s shoulder.
No anything that had to do with people, actually, other than the few dozen players and coaches, who, unless they were out on the field, were wearing masks in the dugout, from where they occasionally hopped out to sit in the spectator seats and assure themselves adequate social distance and a few moments of mask-free bliss.
“What are people for?”
One thing they’re for is to attend sports events and plays, Broadway musicals and folkie house concerts, art museums, dance recitals and poetry readings. They’re for watching other people do things they wish they could do but can’t, but they get something, often a great something, out of watching others who can.
And it’s not strictly about watching greatness, either, about being able to say you saw Michael Jordan or Springsteen live, the original cast of Hamilton in New York, the real Mona Lisa at the Louvre or the Williams sisters at Wimbledon.
It’s also about watching the guy pushing your Polish dog and onions around the grill at the ballgame, the teenage girls singing along with the scoreboard lyrics (“Don’t stop believing!”), the peanut vendor tossing the goods to you mid-row, a perfect strike, while your money makes its way down to him via the seatmates in your row, the ones you are high-fiving like mad the next inning (and maybe even hugging, if it’s a playoff game), after your cleanup hitter launches one deep into the bleacher seats.
Like the old Buddhist koan about whether a tree falls in the forest if there’s no one to hear, can a game or concert, play or recital occur in any meaningful way without someone besides the other performers watching?
The common cliche among many creative people is that they are driven to do what they do, can’t help it, and would do it even if no one watched or read or listened to their creation. I have always found this unpersuasive, not merely because there is the question of how one makes a living if no one is buying the fruit of one’s labors, but more importantly: all sports and arts are about human expressiveness and achievement, about competing and deeply exploring and sharing one’s talents with other human beings.
And yes, putting them on display.
NBA star LeBron James expressed this sentiment frankly a few months ago when talking with reporters after the league circulated a memo suggesting the possibility of resuming the season, but with no fans in the building. He was prevailed upon to backtrack later on, but there was little doubting his true feelings on the matter then or now:
“We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible. I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. So if I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”
Truly, sports and the entire artistic and entertainment industry are a shared enterprise. Hell—life is a shared enterprise!
It’s something that always depressed me about solitaire, which I have never played and never will—cards are a game, a tango, which we know always takes two (at least).
It’s true that friendly card games or 3 on 3 basketball or doubles tennis among friends don’t require an audience for their participants to fully engage in an emotionally and physically rewarding way. But that’s different than professionals who excel in their field and spend countless hours honing their skills in order to perform in a live setting.
Such performers exist in relationship not only to each other, but to the audiences that pay to see them (and exult in the opportunity). They feed off audiences, draw sustenance and inspiration and no small amount of ego gratification from them— which helps them work all the harder to excel. (Let us not underestimate the power of the latter.)
That means audiences themselves are part of the show, fundamental to its importance to the participants and other audience members around them. Professional sports and arts simply do not exist without relation to them. Maybe they can for a season during a pandemic, but all that does is feed a kind of addiction in a bizarre and unsatisfying way, like a heroin junkie trying to make do with a beer.
“Crazy and weird” is how one friend described the two Opening Night games, which included cardboard cut-out people behind home plate in one stadium along with piped-in crowd noise. Trying mightily to put lipstick on a pig, the league commissioner, interviewed remotely by announcers watching the game on their studio TV rather than from the stadium broadcast booth, at one point said, excitedly, “We think it’s going to be great for the players and fans.”
No, it wasn’t “great.” Quite a few standard deviations below that, actually. Same game in its fundamentals, but in terms of the million sensory inputs that create the marvelous ambience of a professional sports event, it much more resembled a low minor league practice session in the off-season somewhere in Arizona.
Will it nevertheless serve a certain need in these unprecedented, making-it-up-as-we-go times? Of course—there were and will continue to be eyeballs looking at screens if baseball and other sports manage to keep the virus from decimating their teams and having to call the whole thing off.
Neither sports nor any of the performing arts are frivolous enterprises. All of them speak to fundamental human needs, which we will go to great lengths—in time, money, and emotional energy—to meet. This includes settling for less than we are used to, if we have no other choice.
If I were to have a prayer about all this, it would be that we never get too used to it. If the virus were to elude an effective vaccine and large gatherings remain problematic and unpopular even as sports and arts resume, it would only accelerate the centuries-long trend toward our dissociation from embodied life.
Ever since the production of the first wheel and simple machines of antiquity, right through to modern video games and virtual reality (isn’t that a self-canceling phrase?), the need to engage our own bodies and other bodies, to be present both literally and figuratively in them, has been on the wane. Everything can be virtual now—our work, our games, our relationships, our sex.
(Porn sites, booming in the Internet age, have been boom-booming since Virus Time began.)
I suppose virtual reality, fueled by enough venture capital, could ultimately create stadium conditions a lot more sophisticated and “real” than the crude cardboard cutouts and crowd noise we beheld the other night. Of course, it could also create the action out on the field, too, making all those high-priced performers go find other, less gainful employment.
If that were to occur, they would not be the only ones losing out in a big way.
I don’t know about you, but I sing along with this lustily at the seventh inning stretch, every game I ever attend. Notably, they almost never show it on TV…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mother with infant by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Stadium by Tim Gouw, Toronto, Canada https://unsplash.com/@punttim
Opera house by Vlah Dumitru, Romania https://unsplash.com/@vlahdumitru