“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.