By Daniel J Vaccaro
Baseball has long been a balm for what ails the country, helping it heal from national tragedy and war. This season, the U.S.’s National Pastime will show whether it has the potency to heal the fresh wounds of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With Major League Baseball this month moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in response to sweeping changes to Georgia voting laws, the Mile High City will now play an important role in that healing. Sports-business and -psychology experts expect the game and its annual All-Star celebration to provide Colorado’s spirit and economy with a big boost.
“Baseball is good for communal healing,” said Shawn Worthy, Ph.D., a sports-psychology expert and professor in the Department of Human Services and Counseling at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It gives people an opportunity to be together, to feel a sense of shared pride and to root for the same outcome.”
The current timeline for a gradual return to some measure of normalcy lines up with the baseball season, Worthy said. As long as the country continues on its current trajectory with vaccinations, baseball will be there for people who want to ease back into communal spaces this summer. And the July 13 All-Star Game could be a watershed moment for Coloradans – and people from around the country and world – to gather en masse once more.
When it comes to the business of baseball, the economic impact of the All-Star Game cannot be overstated, said sports-management expert Kelly Evans, Ph.D. She expects the game to provide a fast economic boost and a longer-term impact.
Evans is an assistant professor in MSU Denver’s Department of Human Performance and Sport who has also worked in MLB’s minor and major leagues and was the first female general manager in the Coastal Plain League with the then-Columbia (South Carolina) Blowfish. She emphasized how the potential psychographic impact on people who visit Denver or even see it on television could lead to a much-needed rebound in tourism.
“There will be lots of new money coming into downtown Denver and the suburbs, money that otherwise wouldn’t be spent,” she said. “I expect we will see a huge increase in the local economy, which we need as a city, county and state after Covid.”
Much has been made of MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta following the passage by the Georgia legislature of SB 202, which critics, including the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Merck, say restricts voting access in the state.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement that the decision to relocate the game was “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport” and was made after consultation with teams and former and current players, among others.
While some, including leaders in the U.S. Congress, accused the league of playing politics, it’s a myth that MLB is becoming political only at this moment in America’s history, said David Piacenti, Ph.D., an associate professor in MSU Denver’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
“If you go back and look at history, baseball has often been involved in litigious aspects of U.S. society,” said Piacenti, an ardent baseball fan who also works as a guest-relations ambassador for the Colorado Rockies and volunteers at the National Ballpark Museum and the Italian American Baseball Foundation. “From playing games on Sunday, which was once illegal, to racial integration to labor laws via the debate over free agency, baseball has been in the middle of political discourse. No sport is independent from the culture it reflects and seeks to represent.”
More recently, the National Basketball Association and even the National Football League have been outspoken on progressive issues, added Evans. The NBA, in particular, empowers players to speak on issues that are important to them, she said.
Baseball fans tend to be older and skew white, Evans said, but MLB understands that it needs to evolve to remain relevant. Otherwise, America’s National Pastime might be past its time.
“Until now, MLB has gotten away with not saying much,” she said, “but that isn’t possible in today’s environment.”
Politics aside, the Mile High City is well-positioned to host an MLB All-Star Game unlike any other because of its passion for the game, Piacenti said.
“Denver has a special relationship with baseball that spans over 140 years now,” he said.
The city’s long history with professional baseball stretches back to the Denver Bears in the late 1800s, as well as its minor-league teams and now the Rockies, he said. Denver was already bidding for the 2022 MLB All-Star Game, but the city shot to the top of the list when a new site was being considered for this summer’s classic.
For Piacenti, Denver is the perfect place for the contest – and not just because he will have a rare opportunity to see it at Coors Field. He believes the game can be cathartic.
Baseball evolved in pastoral places, where families could bring a picnic and not have to focus exclusively on the game, which is why the term “pastime” is a better descriptor than “sport,” which presupposes a more active approach for spectators. With 162 games, half of which are played at home, the long season keeps ticket prices relatively affordable and ensures that a variety of people can attend, Piacenti said.
“Baseball gives people a chance to embrace the summer and warmer weather and, still to this day, bring their own food into the park to eat communally as a family, celebrating unique ethnic traditions,” he said. “Even more importantly, it can break down barriers and at least temporarily allow people from a variety of backgrounds to blow off some steam that built up during a long winter and even longer (pandemic precautions).
“And for baseball fans, like a walk-off home run or a game-saving strikeout, nothing could be more cathartic than the Midsummer Classic.”
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