“It was the Progressive Era, a time when America’s faith in the inevitability of progress was as boundless as the continent itself. But the American frontier was closing. America’s cities were filling with tenements, and racism and fear of foreigners was setting Americans against Americans. Major league baseball entered the 20th century in trouble, beset by declining attendance, rowdyism, unhappy players—and feuding, greedy club owners.” —Ken Burns’ Baseball
Call it a season if you must, but it’s really grasping at the thinnest of reeds, holding on to the flotsam and jetsam of this hollow summer. It’s Jack holding onto Rose’s floating door before succumbing to his freezing cold Atlantic fate. Perhaps more accurately, it’s about to be Hans Gruber’s last moment before falling from the Nakatomi Plaza. Baseball in 2020? Aren’t we all just in denial?
We’re neck-deep into a pandemic and paddling furiously. One hundred and twenty thousand souls have been lost. And counting. As baseball reopens, more than 40,000 new cases of the virus are being reported nationwide daily. While much of the rest of the world has used testing, tracing, face masks and shelter-in-place to control the Sick Air, to hold down the monster as best we humans can without a vaccine, we here in the United States beat on, boats against all reason, convinced this is just the flu with a different, nerdy name, sure the young are invincible and the old are expendable:
We have to accept the fact that there are going to be positive tests. We are either going to do this or not. These are conditioned athletes who have no greater risk from Covid than the flu. Are we gonna just shut everything down again or play ball?
— Sean B. Epstein (@SeanBEpstein1) June 24, 2020
Back in April, when the Sick Air was killing my New York and New Jersey neighbors in horrifying numbers, reader Mike wrote to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty:
“So should we just continue to shut down the world months and months after the “peak” (which is happening now based on every doctor and model that is close to factual), just so that a 65 year old with other health concerns can walk their dog more often?”
That guy Mike was talking about might have been me. My dog would argue with Mike—if I had a dog. I do have a conscience though, and maybe more importantly, a functional soul, so I reject Mike’s argument that some people are expendable for the promise of someone else’s Zoom version of peanuts and crackerjack. Reader Mike may not be a crank, but I know who he is. He’s the guy who cuts you off for the last parking space at Kroger. Mike is the guy Bruce Hornsby was conjuring, the guy who catches the poor old lady’s eye and just for fun says “get a job.”
Still, I understand the frustration languishing just under the thin ice of Mike’s clumsy argument. We love our baseball. Some of us will sacrifice greatly for the game in whatever form offered for the opportunity to inject it directly into our veins. We want nothing more than to hit the pause button on this rebooted version of the Summer of Sam, that 1970s era horror-of-a-time that quarantined New Yorkers inside their homes, afraid to venture outside for fear of a different, unknown killer. We wish for any respite from the reality of this unprecedented health crisis. But, our longing for the National Pastime shouldn’t supersede the health of the people who will have to make this fake season happen.
Nothing about this truncated season is legitimate. The Big 162, reduced to the Tiny 60, is a money grab at the expense of the health of the people involved to make it happen. It’s 18 holes of miniature golf packaged to look like Pebble Beach. It preys upon two constituencies: the players, trapped by their desire to ply their trade within a limited career window; and fans and their hunger for a distraction from their claustrophobic captivity, a desperate need for something resembling normalcy.
The NFL has blithely trudged on, moving their metaphorical chains ten yards at a time toward a fall season for a fantasy and trick of fame, fighting for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, as a noted footballer and former Prince of Denmark once said. Because, yeah, it’s been wildly apparent to anyone paying attention that football can no more happen during a pandemic than I can walk on Mars, even if the NFL has practiced for this for years by mandating social distancing for pass-rushers and Tom Brady. Long before reality shakes Roger Goodell and his deep-pocketed bosses from their collective slumber, college administrators and parents will shut down college football because it’s much harder to put the lives of sons—those unpaid student-athletes—at risk than it is professionals. The only question is the scale of the calamity that will occur before those in charge come to their senses.
Lately, the reality of the Sick Air has been pushed aside as a brewing labor dispute—MLB Owners v. Major League Baseball Players Association—has taken center stage. I’ve had to laugh at the shock and indignation written as if Baseball as a business was some sudden revelation. It’s been about money from the beginning, going back 150 years. Ask Ban Johnson, a one-time sportswriter for the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, who made the Western League a financial success, changed its name to the American League, and took on Albert Spalding and the National League. Ask Josh Gibson or Curt Flood. However, you need not go back that far. The grubby struggle over money took baseball away from fans in 1981, and again as recently as 1994. I laugh at the pleas to ease MLB.TV blackouts. Years ago, when I opted out of MLB.TV’s monthly service, the league kept billing me. Despite proof I had canceled, they refused to reimburse me because, well, let’s be honest, Major League Baseball knows I need my fix and have nowhere else to go. In the words of Curtis Mayfield, “You know me, I’m your friend, your main boy, thick and thin. I’m your pusherman.”
I’ve long since given up on the powers that be doing the right thing. The ethical issues of daily COVID-19 testing for baseball players, while the pleas of ordinary citizens for testing go unheard, is lost among those cloistered in their luxury suites. They only know the money thing.
Many in professional sports like to view their business as a great healer in times of national crisis. Although there was controversy at the time, that didn’t stop the NFL from playing on shortly after the assassination of JFK and some defending that decision:
Mike Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals … “I thought it was right to play the games,” he says. “You just can’t stop doing things when tragedy hits. You have to keep on. In my mind, I think President Kennedy would have expected that.”
Many view the resumption of baseball after 9/11 as a needed salve applied to a nation’s open wound. Can baseball be a healer when it brings the risk of illness—or worse— to players, their families, and the support people around them? And does this moment in history make sports a trivial pursuit amid the world events going on around it?
Meanwhile, as MLB focuses on its bottom line, the Sick Air goes where it will, the league’s new 113-page health protocols be damned.
I’m past the days of falling out of love with baseball because the people who run it value the only green they know over the infield green the rest of us yearn for. I’ll continue to watch because that’s the deal I made with myself a long time ago. I’m at peace with that.
But if the men who own and run the game put profit over the health and safety of the men and women who will have to raise the curtain on this sham of a season, and people get sick and die, the deep cleaning of major league baseball will go far beyond that taking place at spring training facilities throughout Florida and Arizona right now.
Excellent article. I believe that what I have learned from COVID, is that there really is almost no one who cares about other people until it begins to affect themself.
Something I’ve been noticing for years.
This article resonates on so many levels. I wish it didn’t. I too will watch whatever games they manage to play, but we all know it’s a hollow season. It may take baseball longer to heal than the world from COVID.
Am I reading this right?
A 60 game season is a bigger tragedy than COVID?
Say it ain’t so.
It may be if reality is considered
It ain’t so. The permanent end of baseball would not be on par with COVID. The world will eventually move on, although with tragic loss; not sure about baseball.
Cry about it some more.
Agree. And the title of the article. Geez. The air isn’t sick.
Virtue signaling on steroids. Here is an easy solution. If you, as a player, don’t wish to risk playing, here’s a novel idea, DON’T PLAY. We live, for a while longer I pray, in the most free nation in the world. I guess we have all forgotten that none of this is mandatory.
The thing though, VA, is that it’s a two way street. You don’t like someone telling you not to do something, let’s say go to a concert. That affects your life. But the other person also doesn’t want you and all the concert goers to make the basic things they have to do to live, like go grocery shopping, more dangerous for them. That affects them. It’s just that in one case someone could die unnecessarily, and in the other case you miss that sweet Hootie and the Blowfish “Only Wanna Be With You” encore.
There isn’t really a purely personal choice in trying to stop a pandemic, everyone’s actions affect everyone else. They can affect some much more than others.
Thanks Richard for your article. However I disagree with much of it. I see from your short bio that you consider yourself “finished”. I hope my opinion matters even though I do not consider myself finished and never will. I have visited NYC a few times but not apparently enough to have become “finished”. We must try to resume life as much as possible while being as cautious as possible. I applaud MLB & MLBPA for making the moves they have after much consideration. The season will and should have as many asterisks applied to it as possible, but it’s example and effect is very much needed. The risks involved seem to be less than those incurred by even the peaceful protesting as the people density was very high and widespread. Of course it is and was their right to protest and I agree protesting was necessary. When you add in the agitators, extremists, looters, arsonists and anarchists you see that none of us can assume that we can live a risk-free life despite our best individual efforts. So lets proceed with baseball and other activities with as much caution as reasonable men can agree.
1. In 1981 they broke baseball into two 60-70 game seasons. No asterisk.
2. The team with the best record in MLB for for the 125 games did not make the playoffs. No asterisk.
3. The Reds had the best overall record in the NL West and the Cardinals had the best overall record in the NL East. Neither made the playoffs. No asterisk.
4. Pro basketball has an 82 game schedule. No asterisk.
5. College basketball plays 30-40 games before their playoffs start. No asterisk.
6. College basketball has a one and done playoff format. Obviously the best team does not win every year. If a team gets hot in March they may be champions. See Villanova and NC State. No asterisk.
7. College baseball plays 30-40 games in the regular season. No asterisk.
8. College football plays 11/12 games. They play at most 1 or 2 competitive games out of Conference. No asterisk.
9. Pro football plays 16 games (one-fourth of what is being played in baseball this year). No asterisk.
I am at a loss to determine why a 16 game season does not need an asterisk and a 60 game season does.
i am at a loss to determine why a team with the best overall record in the majors failing to make the playoffs does not need asterisk and a 60 game schedule does need an asterisk.
IMO I believe it would be more for a .400 batting average type situation then the winner of it all
I’m not going to edit or delete any of the comments already made in the replies so far, but some of you are getting a little too close to the line with regards to insults towards others and the political commentary. Try to keep away from that stuff.
Do you really think the players are desperate to get on the field and ply their trade? I consider it a money thing for the players. It is all about the money. If it wasn’t they would be willing to play a 75 game season for the price of a 60 game season.
My honest opinion makes you feel bad about yours, so you label it “virtue signaling?”
As for my comment about continuing to watch, I was referencing the many articles and social media comments suggesting the Owners’ greedy behavior will ruin the purity of the game and drive fans away. My point is that the game has always been about $$ and I will continue to watch baseball next season and beyond, labor strife, or no labor strife. This year? There will be no baseball, IMO. It will get shut down before it ever begins because we don’t have a handle on this pandemic and pages and pages of safety protocols won’t change that.
Thanks for reading.
Skyscream much do we? This season will be played. I can’t for the life of me understand why some of you don’t want baseball to be played. These are grown men. If they want to go to work let them. I go to work everyday. I’m not going to stop living my life. Do and will I take precautions? Yes. I’m sure the players will also. This crawl up in a hole and sucking my thumb until it’s over stuff is pathetic.
Stop confusing “don’t want” with “don’t think it should”. They are two very different things.
I am always happy to see Richard Fitch’s by-line at RLN. I know that I will be entertained and informed. I wish he posted more often. I, too, am a baseball junkie. How can I explain to my wife that I miss Chris Welsh and Jim Day more than most of my friends? So, like Richard, I will be watching if there is baseball played. But I agree with him that this season will most likely not happen. It may start, but I suspect it will not finish. The NFL’s bold plan to move forward resulted in the Hall-of-Fame game already being canceled. College football is even riskier. No amount of magical thinking is going to change that.
Better said than I could old-school. I enjoy RLN very much and long for the days of getting back to the articles just revolving around baseball. But all sports media seems to have this mentality that no one should play any sport as it’s too risky etc.
If that is truly their belief then they should stay inside all day every day and call for all workers to not work. Is it an unecessary risk? Probably. But it’s a business and people in this business need to get paid to support their families just like you or me need to get paid to support our families. On top of that baseball teams have so many more resources to be able to have safe healthy interactions. Imagine being someone who works in healthcare. Or someone who works at a grocery and rides the bus to and from work. Or the people who pick up your garbage. They have sooo much more interaction with so many more people but we don’t mind them.
Do it safely and they have and their chances aren’t any greater than many getting it at their own jobs
“. . .we here in the United States beat on, boats against all reason, convinced this is just the flu with a different, nerdy name, sure the young are invincible and the old are expendable. . .I reject Mike’s argument that some people are expendable.”
No one, literally no one believes that old people are “expendable,” and you know it. It’s just a cheap, small way to smear those who oppose your opinion. The arguments for ending the lockdown range from medical (reaching herd immunity) to civil (acknowledging that individual actors have agency over their own lives). If the players want to risk exposure, that’s their right to do so. If you want to take extreme precautions, it’s your right to do so. What you don’t have is the right to force others to ruin their lives to completely limit your exposure to a virus. When you want to come back and write about what your opposition actually believes instead of this field full of straw men, feel free. Until then, I’ll practice my right to refuse to take anything you write seriously.
You have to be willing to sacrifice many more lives to achieve herd immunity, so you’ve already invalidated you first assertion that no one thinks older people are expendable. In advocating for that as a possibility, you’ve just admitted you may very well be one of those individuals. Well done.
Players aren’t merely exercising agency over their own lives. They’re risking the health of the all the people around them that are necessary to make a baseball season happen. That includes people you may not have considered, like the folks that will have to move them from city to city.
You’re life isn’t being ruined by others, and no, individuals do not have complete agency over their own lives. Get behind the wheel of a car, you’d better have purchased insurance. You’d better wear a seatbelt, even if you think it’s your right to have agency over your own life on the road. Oh, and the speed limit exists because your “freedom” ends when you put others at risk.
As to your last point, well:
I. Don’t. Care.
Replying in the most defensive way imaginable. . .you have an odd way of showing me how little you care about my opinion.
There’s no iron law that says achieving herd immunity will equal massive loss of life. Herd immunity is not only the best option we have, it may well be the only option if we don’t come up with a vaccine. (Worth noting: human civilization has never developed a vaccine for a COVID virus, never). At some point, we’re going to come out of hiding take the brunt of the virus head on. One could argue that this very scenario is playing out before our eyes, as we see increased cases with no real corresponding spikes in deaths. And how, exactly, does the pursuit of herd immunity pick on the elderly? Herd immunity models seek to shelter the vulnerable while the young and healthy burn through the virus. Either you don’t understand herd immunity or you want to deliberately misrepresent my point of view. Judging by your earlier writing, I’m assuming the latter.
Odd that you use “getting behind the wheel of a car”, when it is your opinion that the road should be emptied for your benefit.
The decreased mortality rate for the current spike in cases is thought to be caused by the fact that the increase in cases includes a large number of younger people. There may well be a lagging impact in a few weeks as the infection spreads to other age groups. There’s clearly a philosophical divide between you and Mr. Fitch. I side with him. He’s not, for instance, suggesting that the road be cleared for him: He’s suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to drive too fast or be under the influence. Most freedoms are not absolute: They’re balanced by responsibility. You have freedom of speech, yes, but are not free to yell “fire” in a crowded theater (unless, of course, there’s actually a fire).
I’ve had conversations with people who believe that older people are expendable, so it isn’t the case that no one believes this. And I think you miss a point:Yes, I can choose to stay home, but people who engage in risky behavior affect not just themselves: They enhance the spread of the virus, and increase the risk for everyone else, including healthcare workers and many other people in critical occupations. The herd immunity theory was tested by Sweden, with poor results, and there is some evidence that even people with mild cases suffer long-term damage.The economy needs to be protected, but it needs to be protected wisely, and that probably means putting some things on hold for awhile.
Thank you Richard for your prospective. i am frankly relieved that the number of cases are increasing becauses the number of deaths from coronavirus continue to drift down. The denominator is increasing exponentially while the numerator essentially stays the same. This means the virus is losing its lethality which is a great thing.
I predict by the end of the summer the mortality rate may be below 1 percent and that will be of documented cases. that is approaching influenza levels. If that is the case even an old guy like me may take a chance and try to catch a game at gabp, ( if fans are allowed) to attend.
I saw on worldometer today in Nevada there were over 1000 reported new cases but only 1 new death. Now those are odds even the most conservative person could live with as far as getting “back to normal “
Great point! We are slowly moving toward herd immunity, whether politicians want us to or not.
if there were a 125,000 deaths and 1 million cases I would fear the virus more than 125,000 deaths and 2.5 million cases. if by august there is lets say 150,000 deaths out of 10 million cases I feel comfortable getting out and even catching a game. and I am old and used to smoke. just my thought. I would rather be dealing with a virus that is more widespread but less lethal than a virus that is more contained but more lethal
There’s also some promising random antibody tests that are showing that there may be FAR more people that have had the infection than we believed. The CDC estimates that 10x as many people have had the virus as we once thought. The higher that number goes, the lower the fatality %. This is a VERY good thing. As the virus mutates it gets progressively weaker. By passing through young, healthy people, the virus is slowly becoming less and less potent.
Unfortunately, here in Florida, the virus is not just passing through young people. Be smart and stick to the CDC guidelines to protect yourself, your family and others. I think It will be, at least, two years (March 2022), before we have a vaccine and can return to a so-called normal. Pushing to return to normal is not going to make it so.
No, it’s not nearly as dangerous as we feared, huh? In less than five months it has killed more Americans than World War 1 did, far more than Vietnam or the 20-year war in the Middle East. Regardless of the mortality rate, the more cases there are, the more people we’ll lose.
Thank you for the well thought out words, CI3J. No matter how much the players want to play for the love they have for the sport, it’s always about the money to some degree. But when you’ve worked so hard to get to the pinnacle of your profession, you have the right to want to get paid as much as you can.
We could have burned this thing out had we attacked it the way many other countries did, but we elected not to and now we are paying the price. It’s incredibly sad.
Richard, great writing. I wish I could say I was surprised that people came out of the woodwork to chirp about “virtue signaling” or whatever other nonsense, but I’m not. Sometimes talking points or semantics just matter more than another’s justifiable concern of preventable death, you know?
Thanks for your perspective, I found it enlightening and appreciate you expanding my thinking. I hadn’t really considered the indirect risk to the populace, and what that might mean to all of the at-risk people in it. It made me think of my grandmother and parents.
The issue is we opened to early. Other countries didn’t reopen until new cases were almost gone. We were in the tens of thousands, and some people never took it seriously.
Half measures never work, and we never went all in and are paying for it now. Our freedoms in this country make containing a pandemic nearly impossible.
I’m turning off comments on this article. There still continues to be people toeing the line a little too much, and moderating it all is something that I’d rather not have to continue to do – it takes away time from trying to write about baseball. Thanks to everyone who played nice, even while in disagreement with others in the discussion.