This was supposed to be a season preview: a comical, carefree smattering of outlandish predictions and paper-thin arguments about players and teams that could ultimately make the most of this 60 game sprint that Major League Baseball has bestowed upon us, sparking a generation of ‘was it legit?’ debates when we see a .400 hitter and a sub-two ERA pitcher in the same season.
After the fourth total delete, though, I took a deep breath and started to confront the thoughts I had been dodging, like Josh Harrison in a pickle, since this whole saga began.
It’s easy to love the game of baseball. It’s the most perfect game ever created—because it is so rigidly imperfect. There are exactly 90 feet to first base, but the outfield is anyone’s guess. The basic rules were made over a century ago, yet we find new ways to break them all the time.
But it’s hard to love everything else that surrounds it. The politics, the money, the scandals—it wears on you. This season has tested fans in a way that few seasons, if any, ever have. And it’s in danger of striking out in the process, based on what has already happened, what is now happening, and what we miss by forcing it to happen.
STRIKE ONE: MISSING THE EASY PITCHES
Baseball is an exhausting sport, really. From the first glove pop of spring training, to the last out of the World Series, through to the first arrival to the Winter Meetings, it’s a machine with little time to cool down. And maybe that’s what the game needs right now. The aforementioned ugly labor battle that brought us to this quirky season exposed the true decay in the underbelly of the game, and it’s clear that jamming this sprint through at the last minute isn’t boosting anyone’s odds for an improved negotiation after the 2021 season. Rather, it seems to only have cemented the acrimony that had already taken root between the two sides.
Rewind a couple of weeks: Twitter timelines were flooded with a combination of relief and excitement. Baseball was back, and it seemed like everyone was ready to start pushing toward the life we knew before coronavirus spread like wildfire across the world. Frustrated ‘when and where’ hashtags started to give way to excited tweets about ‘getting back to work.’ It started to feel okay to talk about rosters, projections, and a team’s ‘chances’ in this bizarre season that seemed ready to take place . . .
STRIKE TWO: THE SYSTEM BREAKS DOWN
But as we draw closer to opening day, the wheels have started to come off. The rigorous testing that baseball players seemingly had access to, while the public struggled for it, started to break down: samples were lost, testers didn’t show, and processing took too long for adherence to policy. On top of that, players like Freddie Freeman, Charlie Blackmon, and more started to return positive tests, while players like Nick Markakis and David Price decided to sit out for the year rather than risk their own safety. The bad news continued to pile up, and all the while the baseball world kept the corner of one eye on one of the most vocal players on his COVID concerns: the best player in baseball, Mike Trout. Awaiting the birth of his first child, Trout has made it known that he is concerned about potentially exposing himself to the virus, returning to be with his family for the birth, then leaving to quarantine for two weeks—only to go back into a high-risk situation in the name of playing baseball. As of a few days ago, Trout told USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale (not a source I typically enjoy citing) that he hasn’t yet decided on his participation in the upcoming season, and that he’s “playing it by ear.” It’s my belief that if Trout were to decide to opt out, many stars would follow suit, creating another strange juncture for MLB in a year that seems to be full of them. What does the game do when its greatest player, and so many others, could potentially opt not to play?
STRIKE THREE: THE OPPORTUNITY COST
Progress is a fragile thing. Progress in combating racial inequality, and in undoing centuries of injustice, is akin to doing a three-legged egg race covered in oil on a floor made of jagged glass. 2020 has become a year of small steps toward understanding and identifying racial injustice and systemic mistreatment of communities of color in America, thanks to much of white America having nothing else conveniently grabbing our attention away from what has been there all along. The events that have recently boosted the Black Lives Matter movement are not new or unique to 2020; they are simply given more attention by virtue of there being little else to bury them. Instead of debating MVP races or just getting lost in the day-to-day routines that so overtake our lives, we were forced to watch eight minutes and forty-six seconds of what has been plaguing this country in increments of decades and centuries. We’re starting to have what resembles real conversations about where we are in this country today—conversations that are difficult, uncomfortable, and require us to resist burying our noses in something more familiar but far less important.
Think about it this way. It’s early July during a normal baseball season. Are we not actually making real progress on removing the Tomahawk Chop from Atlanta, or FINALLY renaming the Cleveland baseball club? Or are we talking about the former’s star center fielder and the latter’s colorful starting pitcher?
Baseball’s silence was golden during this unique time. That it’s trying to elbow its way into the conversation again seems in bad taste, considering how it got to that silence. If this sport really is the pastime of this nation, then maybe baseball should consider doing what’s best for it.
So this is typically the part where I offer some kind of starry-eyed solution, some glimmer of hope for what this year could bring. But I have nothing to offer in this regard. If we get baseball this year, I’m going to watch it. I’m going to write about it, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it . . . but there’s no going back now. There’s going to be a percentage of headspace devoted to the failures of this season, what has led to where we are now, and what’s next.
The game has its pitcher up to bat, and a runner on first with no outs. We’re all hoping that we’ll get a pitch to hit and not just roll into a double play, sure—but there might only be one smart play here . . .
Strike Out, and wait patiently for the next at-bat.