THEY PLAYED BASEBALL here Thursday. The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees at Nationals Park. The attendance was 0. Max Scherzer, the Nationals' ace, faced off against Gerrit Cole, the Yankees' shiny new $324 million toy. They threw pitches. Hitters swung at them. Balls flew and fielders chased them and batters ran and the game itself, the perfect summertime activity, Americana in the nation's capital, felt the same, even if nothing really is anymore.

Baseball became the first big-four American professional sport to return, and its circuitous path to 7:09 p.m., when Scherzer missed with a fastball to the Yankees' Aaron Hicks, mirrored the chaos of recent months. There was partisanship, fighting, power plays, brinksmanship. At one point, when the animus between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association threatened the season, the White House got involved, offering to mediate. President Donald Trump had said he wanted baseball to return -- to bring a sliver of normalcy to a world beset by abnormality and shattered by death.

For the past four months, as baseball shut down and the coronavirus overwhelmed all aspects of daily life, baseball has framed an eventual return similarly: as a panacea, a diversion, something that's not the pandemic. Thursday laid bare the folly of that idea, that piped-in crowd noise and broadcasters calling the game from home and copious mask usage and empty concourses don't explicitly illustrate there is absolutely nothing normal about this. That so desirous is America for something else, anything else, that it could look past the absurdity of a baseball stadium, a place of gathering, of coming together, mandating the few allowed inside stay apart.

Which didn't lessen the joy that could be gleaned from it. The pent-up desire to scream and cheer and suffer finally had found its outlet. The plea for something orderly and incontrovertible was answered. The pandemic cannot change 60 feet, 6 inches from mound to plate. It cannot modify 90 feet between the bases. It cannot rejigger the 5-ounce ball and it cannot source new material for bats and it cannot abolish three strikes and you're out.