The Electronic Campfire: Coming Together in a Time of Distance

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Major League Baseball’s Opening Day was scheduled for March 26—it would have been the earliest Opening Day in history—and as the date approached I found myself thinking not so much about the games not being played as about lines Walt Whitman wrote, and where I first heard them.

“In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious.”

A little over a quarter-century ago, I interviewed documentarian Ken Burns as his epic Baseball was about to premiere on PBS, where the first words were these lines penned by Long Island’s own Good Gray Poet. There was incredible anticipation for the film, a sequel of sorts to the groundbreaking The Civil War that Burns had captivated America with four years earlier, and the buildup was made more tangible than most premieres we look forward to these days simply because so much remained under wraps. Until it was released to the public, there was simply the typical PR campaign that surrounded such things. There were no social campaigns, certainly not endless trailers and teasers to pass around and comment on, and the water cooler was really the place where everyone shared their thoughts the next morning.

This is likely no revelation to those of you who recall the days before Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, before email was any real kind of communication tool, before the internet made everything accessible in a few keystrokes. It was a time when people actually still drew a distinction between “cable” and “regular” television, certainly before anyone was imagining streaming services and social media and being able to share everything at any time, with anyone, wherever they might be.

Burns and I talked for hours about the making of the film and the game’s metaphorical power, the role baseball played in American society with regard to topics ranging from race to mass entertainment to unions to the growth of suburbia. I was mesmerized by the tales and soon-to-become-unforgettable storytellers he had uncovered. He had even sent me an advanced screening copy of the 18-plus-hour program, prior to our interview, which I consumed in a single day—binge watching before that was a thing, I suppose.

As writers such as Hamptonites Willie Morris and George Plimpton pontificated, I was immersed in wonder of the Miracle Mets and the shame of the Black Sox scandal, the exploits of Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax and yes, of course, Bridgehampton’s Carl Yastrzemski, of the power of baseball to, as James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams, mark the time. As irony and fate would have it, this was the strike-shortened year 1994, the first time in 90 years that a World Series had been cancelled.

Today, though, what keeps coming back to me again and again is the fascination Burns had with the idea of “the electronic campfire.” He was incredibly taken with the concept that at a set time each night—Baseball ran for nine consecutive evenings, each segment called an “inning”—he could imagine viewers far and wide bathed in the glow not of blazing wood but of the television, all simultaneously experiencing the story he was telling while being nowhere near him or one another.

I relayed this memory to a fellow baseball fan who lives Southampton. We have spent many Opening Days together in the past, played ball together on several teams in days now long gone, share a love for the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League, and marvel how in all its facets, in its history and in the stands that will again one day be filled, the game unites people from every walk of life. So, we thought, maybe, starting on Opening Day, we would watch Baseball together. While being nowhere near each other.

You’ve all seen #TogetherApart. There is no more apt hashtag for these times. Yes, we miss one another. We miss the social interaction and the freedom to roam wherever the day or night takes us. We miss being able to get together to watch a ballgame or go to a bar, climb and jump all over a playground, even build a fire and sit close, sharing laughs and stories and the trials and tribulations of our days.

So gather around that electronic campfire. It burns more brightly today than ever before. Share your stories or somebody else’s, an entertaining or enlightening article you’ve read, a favorite movie or show you adore. Share old memories and brand new reflections, a video of you playing virtual charades or your pet dancing to some Jimmy Buffett song, photos of your child building a boat, or your view of the ocean as you take a solitary stroll. Share your wisdom and wit and love and support, but please, do it from a distance.

Yes, this is a time for us to come together.

By staying apart.

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