How the Bungled Response to Covid-19 Reveals Baseball’s Inability to Evolve in a Changing Culture
By Brian Connor
Nothing could be done with the timing. Baseball happened to be the most heavily affected domino that fell among the cancelled major sports, unable to cancel a postseason or come up with a video game-esque return to play tournament format. The NBA, NHL, and Premier League soccer all shifted towards finishing up what little of the season remained or moving right to postseason play- in other words, the best part of the year for all of them. The MLB, meanwhile, had to get everyone out of Arizona and Florida and figure out how to come close to salvaging the 2,430 games they would have otherwise played.
Baseball was never a sport designed to make everyone happy. If you do your job right 3 out of 10 times, you likely get put on a performance review; if you’re a major leaguer who gets a hit 3 out of 10 at-bats, you likely get put on the All-Star team. If you go to bed with your favorite team having lost that day 62 times a year, you probably root for one of the best teams in the league and went to sleep happy the other 100 times. Whether a casual fan or an absolute fanatic, your favorite type of games are likely fast games (i.e. under 3 hours) featuring a lot of homers and runs scored- in other words, games that almost never happen.
So it was likely wrong for us to assume that we were going to be happy with whatever makeshift version of a Major League Baseball season was going to be proposed, especially as it became reality that our usual summer of a hot dog and a cold beer in the bleachers, a walk by a sports bar with the game feed audible, and a game on the TV as background noise to a family party was less and less likely to happen. And as the transition of winter to spring and, now, spring to summer came without the glistening feel of Opening Day, the rawness of the world suspended the joy of the turn of the seasons as all came to a halt. There was no joy in Mudville, for they were all indoors.
Baseball then tried, in earnest I suppose, to try to come up with a plan to return, because America’s pastime, damnit. Forget that boring old soccer or that ice hockey thing I could never really understand, we need baseball back to heal this nation, for Christ! And yes, there are much bigger things for everyone both on a societal and personal level and many lives to be saved in the time of a pandemic. But I get it, though baseball junkie I am: emblematic of both the daily grind of the American worker and the daydream summer’s day that gets over half the country through its brutal winter, the sport hits differently than others. World wars couldn’t stop it; 9/11 merely delayed it; there’s an invincibility surrounding it, as sure as summer comes, so does baseball.
So where are we, then, as we approach almost three months since the originally scheduled Opening Day? Mainly, prorated salaries for players were proposed by team owners, agreed to by those players, then taken back for further pay cuts by those owners. This is likely because it simply won’t be feasible to play in front of fans this year, and ticket sales, concessions, etc. are the money makers for teams. The losses expected are, exact words from Cubs owners Tom Ricketts, “biblical” for this year for MLB. No crosstown rivalry here: he and Jerry Reinsdorf mark the Chicago owners worth $1.8 billion who likely won’t see a dime of ticket sales between their two baseball teams this year. At least they have a better fate than the five poor bastards in the group of owners worth less than a billion- how else would they sleep at night? (Bringing up the rear is supposedly Reds owner Bob Castellini, with a net worth of a chump change $400 million)
But who wants that pressure of owning a team and striking a deal, anyway? I just want to take my family of four to a baseball game, just like when I was a kid. In 2019 this came out to an average of $32.99 a person just for the privilege of being in the park (damn Yankees driving those price up). Pops need a cold beer, of course, and a dollar saved is a dollar earned, kids, so I’m getting this light beer for $10 instead of a craft beer for $12. You kids need a hot dog, too, and thank goodness for that family deal for a hot dog and a drink- cheaper than sold separately! This Bud’s for me, so honey, you can have my fountain drink and we all come out ahead at $11.75 apiece! You look like you could use a $20 hat, Junior- my dad got me one when I was your age- and your brother needs a souvenir bat for another $25. We’ve got all that, so let’s strap in for at least 3 hours and watch .006% of the regular season!
Unrelated, baseball’s popularity is decreasing nationwide but had a revenue of $10.37 billion dollars last year. If only owners had made their coffee and avocado toast at home, maybe they would’ve saved some money for the players this year.
Two things are true for me at once, as things often are now: baseball is my favorite sport, and I can no longer justify why anyone would take a rooting interest in it. I called it America’s pastime earlier, but it isn’t anymore: five NFL regular season games drew higher TV ratings than Game 7 of the World Series last year, and never mind trying to follow a team for 162 days of the year as opposed to 16 Sundays. Soccer’s boring and low scoring? Check the fans in the 80th minute of a 1-0 Premier League game compared to the 8th of a 1-0 baseball game. Best live experience? Be there in person for a 2-1 hockey game. Most exciting sport? Same hockey game, only playoffs. How often have you seen a Steph Curry 3 or a LeBron dunk on Twitter? Every other winter day for about five years, right? What about a Mike Trout highlight of any kind? Whenever the official MLB account decides to tweet about it, I’m guessing? And don’t even think about giving baseball or the modern day Babe Ruth that free publicity on YOUR account, that’s against the rules! If James Harden does anything funny, go viral, you millennial hippie, but don’t ruin the sanctity of baseball with that vine of a home run!
These were my gripes before coronavirus, usually countered with “can’t beat being there on a nice day” and “you never really see the same thing twice”. Now we likely won’t be able to watch it in person at all this year, again destined for a boring summer due to a labor dispute, again making the same mistake that doomed the sport back in 1994. The owners who supposedly cannot cope with the idea of lost revenue have nixed the player’s proposal of a 114 game season with a final offer of 50 games, as if the increased per game importance will salvage the sport.
This is where we stand, then, summer nearly in full. We are days away from a no contact sport with bases 90 feet apart not being able to figure out how to handle coronavirus, with variations of it currently being played elsewhere in the world and all other major sports leagues either starting or finalizing plans to start. In a country with millions out of work, 30 owners have its most traditional sport at a standstill out of caution of paying their players risking exposure to a virus in a worldwide pandemic a little bit more than they’d like. As places gradually start to return to normal, the best case scenario for a Major League Baseball season is a bastardized, bite-sized, 50 game sprint despite the wishes of fans and players alike. Baseball is, and should be, taking a backseat to the much more important things that affect our day to day lives more than any game ever could (unless you want to add it to the list of things that need racial reform: only 7% of MLB players are Black). But in a time when we just need it to be a three hour distraction in any iteration, it can’t even be that.
Nothing could be done with the timing. So much more could have been done with the time that immediately followed.
About the Author: Brian Connor writes on a number of topics, though most consistently about baseball on a fan site covering the White Sox during the season. Some further readings can be found at discodemolished.blogspot.com, which lately has been a similar screaming in the void nature of MLB coverage.
Image Credit: “Detroit ball player slides safely into third base as fielder reaches to the left for ball on the ground during baseball game” The Library of Congress