Use your illusion: Twins season begins as both distraction and reminder

When you weren’t really paying attention this weekend, or conversely you were able to lose yourself in the moment, the Twins’ season-opening series win over the White Sox felt close to normal.

With the game on in the background and the white noise of a crowd providing a familiar hum — while keeping one eye on proceedings while working on other things — things felt familiar.

When Jake Cave hit a long fly ball to left on Sunday, barely clearing the wall, I felt a good 30 seconds of genuine baseball reflection: The difference between four runs from a grand slam and zero runs on a long fly ball out was a mere matter of inches. Baseball is wonderful in that way.

But the mundane moments of being present, at least to me, felt as jarring as the other moments were soothing. The strange cardboard cutouts behind home plate and in the stands: a constant reminder of an empty stadium, and therefore a reminder of why the stadium was empty. You know, the global health pandemic causing death, sickness, economic devastation and, way down on that list, disruption of our sporting norms.

The times I caught myself remembering that the noise I was hearing wasn’t real. Or at least it wasn’t coming from fans inside the ballpark. It was pre-recorded, piped in, meant to provide a sense of normalcy to players and a TV audience – but only achieving that goal if we don’t think too hard.

Everything with a soft focus.

I tried the radio for a couple innings, and that seemed to be the most normal of all – until a hitter sprayed a foul ball into the stands, and Dan Gladden instinctively referred to it as a souvenir.

For whom? Twins PR guru Dustin Morse, who is on a quest to recover all the home run balls that normally would have been snagged by fans (a fun bit of levity, but also a reminder of what we’ve lost)?

Perhaps the moment that brought it all home: Sunday’s seventh inning stretch, with the Twins comfortably ahead, and God Bless America blasting through a stadium filled with only players and the cardboard cutouts of fans who would normally be there.

Watching and listening to the Twins in 2020: It is strange and nice. Weird and comforting. A distraction and a reminder.

Waking up Monday morning, the instinct was to look at the standings: The Twins are tied atop the AL Central at 2-1 with Cleveland and Detroit … whoa, strange, nobody in the majors is either winless or undefeated after most have played just three games.

But even an opening weekend that went off mostly without a hitch for baseball was quickly brought back to a different reality with news of the Marlins having 11 players test positive for COVID-19. Their game against the Orioles on Monday? Postponed. The Phillies, who just played the Marlins? Their game against the Yankees has been postponed.

The thing that was inevitable and which nobody really wanted to think about has happened with 5% of the season in the books.

Everything precarious about even a 60-game season (plus expanded playoffs!) came back to the forefront. Oh, and the Blue Jays didn’t even know exactly where they would play their home games by the time the season started. The plan now: Buffalo, but not for a couple weeks while they scramble to get that stadium Major League-ready.

I’d cue up the South Park song “Blame Canada,” but that’s the wrong country to blame. I wouldn’t want U.S. ballplayers coming into my country, either.

Amid this swirl, the Twins are preparing for their home opener Tuesday. If you are experiencing conflicted emotions right now – excitement for a season with tremendous promise, mixed with a nervous nagging feeling that none of this should be happening and everything should be shut down, combined with a sadness that you can’t be there in person on what looks like a glorious night, helped by the thought that at least you can see it on TV – you are not alone.

It has always required a certain degree of separation from realities of life to ascribe tremendous meaning to sports. It’s hardly as though the world was perfect a year ago as the Twins won 101 games. There was disease. There was poverty. Countless things happening just beyond the veil.

But watching the Twins and sports in general right now just feels even more complicated, with the escape and the trap part of the same visible hole.

Now more than ever, your reality depends on how you use your illusion.

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