Baseball was already in trouble.
This is the sport that wants us all to believe it is still our national pastime. But right now, it is letting the nation down, unable even in this time of crisis to keep its ugliest squabbles private, a new load of dirty laundry leaked to the public daily. Players on one side, owners on the other, a deep divide in between about how, or even if, baseball will return to the field.
The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of too much already, taking lives and livelihoods with indiscriminate abandon, altering our daily lives in ways we could barely have imagined back when spring was dawning and we got our first glorious sounds of bats cracking and mitts popping. If the stewards of our beloved American game somehow let this season join the list of coronavirus casualties, the shame will neither be easily forgivable nor ever forgotten. There was little appetite for such financial disputes before, but the current climates drops us to absolute zero in tolerating an argument that pits billionaires on one side and millionaires on the other.
If they can’t find common ground now, when will they ever?
No one is pretending sports is the answer to our pandemic problem, and we all understand the complicated machinations necessary to bring any sort of action back to life. We know that owners are losing monumental sources of revenue, but we also recognize that players are losing irretrievable chunks of time. That they’ve managed to turn this into an “I’ve got it worse than you do” argument while regular folks have it so much worse off than either of them is beyond tone deaf.
There are pathways to compromise — the work being done by the NHL and its convoluted playoff plan, by the NBA and its plans that put an emphasis on player safety, by the NFL and its unbridled optimism as it targets a full fall return, all of it fosters hope our beloved sports distraction may again return.
Baseball, as usual, didn’t get the memo, continuing instead to stumble over itself with the same graceless selfishness that has come to define the sport since, oh, around 1994. For those too young to remember, that’s when labor strife ended the season prematurely and canceled the World Series, when the sport that was once as intrinsic to our national identity as the proverbial apple pie and backyard barbecue wounded itself almost beyond repair, when the real shift from national obsession to regional prominence reduced baseball’s sporting influence.
It took years for baseball to reclaim lost fans, and it was lucky enough to get even a percentage of them back, understanding as we do now that the turbocharged steroid era that followed was partly responsible for the game’s renaissance.
But if that road to recovery seemed difficult, the one that looms next could be impossible.
By its own admission, baseball is aware of a waning connection to our collective sports psyche. Commissioner Rob Manfred has gone on plenty of fishing expeditions to fix the game, floating ideas from the ridiculous (drafting your own playoff opponent) to the minuscule (the ongoing belief that bypassing the four pitches of an intentional walk actually does anything to speed up a game), anything to make baseball a more fan-friendly game.
Yet on his watch baseball was rocked by scandal during its most prominent event, when some abhorrent, misogynistic behavior by Houston Astros officials commandeered every World Series headline last fall. The hits kept on coming. Those same Astros were subsequently unmasked as serial cheaters, their codified system of stealing and relaying signs tainting their dominant 2017 World Series win. The unfolding scandal cost three managers their jobs — the Red Sox parted ways with Alex Cora and the Mets with former Astro Carlos Beltran, and Houston fired A.J. Hinch. Worse, it opened a bitter public divide among the players who’d cheated so brazenly and the ones they victimized with their nefariousness.
Back in February, when spring training opened, it seemed as if that sign-stealing saga was the only sword of Damocles hanging over the game. The words of veteran pitcher Chris Sale reflected an understanding of peril that extended beyond one incident. They seem prophetic now.
“I think I was even more mad at the game as a whole,” Sale said. “I’m a part of this, too. This is my era of baseball. All of our names are attached to it forever. It’s like the steroid era. Anybody who played in that time is going to be questioned. When you borrow something from somebody, you want to return it in as good a shape as you were handed it. And this game was handed to me. Essentially, I’m borrowing it. I want to leave this game in a better way than I started in it.”
Instead, baseball keeps getting worse, leaving you to wonder: Is anyone in the game even listening?