Two words we’ve been longing to hear: “Play ball”

Take me out to the ballgame, in spirit if not to an actual ballpark.

The return of the game in any capacity is a salve for a nation still in need of any elixir it can get in the midst of a seemingly endless pandemic.

If the catchers and umpires aren’t the only ones wearing masks, if the traditional, rhythmic beating of the drum from high up in the bleachers in Cleveland is pre-recorded, as was the case during the Pirates’ visit this week, so be it.

It’s time to embrace the game, in any configuration.

I’ve watched and appreciated plenty of historical highlights during baseball’s hiatus, from Steve Blass’ dominance of Baltimore in the 1971 World Series to Don Larsen’s perfection for the Yankees in ’56.

I’ve seen Mickey Mantle in action.

Now it’s time to see if Cole Tucker can play centerfield.

Put me in coach, I’m ready to watch them play.

What we’re about to receive is as unprecedented as it will be unpredictable, at least initially. But the return of Major League Baseball this week _ Gerrit Cole against Max Scherzer officially welcomes the game back on Thursday night _ will at the same time return a sense of normalcy for which we’ve been thirsting.

The Pirates open up on Friday night in St. Louis.

They’ll do so having expressed equal parts determination, anticipation and optimism throughout what the Bucs have referenced as “Spring Training 2.0.”

The determination results from an understanding of how bad the Pirates were last season and a desire not to be that bad again, according to Steven Brault.

The anticipation after such a long period of forced inactivity is palpable, so happy are the players to be playing again that not even the profound set of prerequisite protocols for doing so are going to get in the way, according to Joe Musgrove.

And the optimism is a natural extension of having a new general manager (Ben Cherington), a new manager (Derek Shelton), some new faces and a new season.

Everybody’s a potential pennant winner in spring training, when anything is still possible if not probable.

Brault’s theory regarding the upcoming 60-game sprint is particularly intriguing.

Imagine every team being tied for first place after 102 games.

This season we won’t have to imagine.

Perhaps the enthusiasm that’s accompanied a unique opportunity and a new regime won’t last the weekend.

That doesn’t matter, either.

Play ball.

The game has survived the sudden halt of spring training, the labor consternation that ended up being publicly argued prior to baseball’s resumption and, so far, at least, stipulations that include no spitting, something that for baseball is as natural of an act as swinging a bat.

The love of the game will always endure, even if Kevin Costner isn’t pitching to John C. Reilly while being managed by the Farmers Insurance Guy.

It’s always been that way.

At least it has for me.

Confirmation as to why that’s always been the case came via some research conducted after watching the MLB Network rebroadcast of Larsen’s perfect effort against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the ’56 Fall Classic at Yankee Stadium, the first and still the only perfect game in World Series history.

Larsen died of esophageal cancer at the age of 90 on Jan. 1.

His obituary in the New York Times put into context how a pitcher on the way to a career record of 81-91 could improbably achieve temporary perfection in the game’s most historic cathedral and on the game’s grandest stage:

“It was a reminder of the incredible, unforgettable things that can take place on a baseball field.”

You could look it up.

Courtesy of Getty Images.

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