In a 1930 collection of brief essays, The Book of Journeyman, Albert Jay Nock—once upon a time a semi-professional baseball player himself—included a piece called “Decline and Fall.” He began by disclosing a New England college trustee revealing golf becoming more popular than baseball on campus since baseball’s “over-commercialisation” now impressed students as lacking golf’s class.
Accepting all that, Nock saw “one merit” in that shift of view, writing that golf “is no game to watch—one must play it oneself to get anything out of it.” Funny, but that’s what a lot of people who don’t like to watch baseball say about baseball, even as the fact that so many people have loved watching baseball’s “great spectacle made its commercialisation possible.”
There is some commercialisation of football and tennis, but it will never go any distance as it has in baseball; and golf, I think, will always remain a player’s game. How odd it would be, though, if a generation should grow up which knew not baseball! America would no longer seem like America.
Nock couldn’t have foreseen the future popularity of football, or future baseball administrators becoming as inept as they’ve been in preserving and enhancing the game’s popular value. But neither could he know a day would come when a viral pandemic, whose advent and arrival was bungled worse than any commissioner bungled baseball’s standing, would bring baseball to a halt indeed.
The meme cliche is now weeks old in which you can remember just how profoundly Joni Mitchell’s ancient lyric fits baseball this minute: “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The winter of malcontent over Astrogate melted uneasily enough into spring before the coronavirus’s surge forced American sports to suspend themselves. Baseball’s absence has made more than a few of the restless more so.
Now comes word of a plan of sorts to bring the major league game back “as early as May,” as ESPN’s Jeff Passan phrases his report, with the apparent blessing of “high-ranking federal public health officials” he says believe baseball can return safely—in Arizona alone, and with nobody in the stands to root-root-root for the home team or otherwise.
The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks’s Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.
There was indeed talk of playing to empty houses by design before baseball and other sports suspended over the coronarivus. Baseball has a precedent, of course, thanks to the 2015 riots that battered Baltimore, a surreal game between the Orioles and the White Sox for which Camden Yards was closed to the public and both teams (the Orioles won, 8-2) felt as though they were playing in the Twilight Zone.
But this isn’t the immediate aftermath of a city-breaking riot provoked by the combustibility of police malfeasance and looters using the very real outrage over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody as beards for their destruction. This is baseball and the world at large trying to overcome one of recorded history’s worst pandemics while trying to find its way back to a semblance of normalcy.
It’s bad enough that governments and leaders seize upon the virus as a beard for their impulses toward bringing their subjects further under control than they’ve craved without such pandemics. It might be just as bad if industries feeling the impact of the shutdowns reach for desperate ploys upon their returns, whenever those returns may be.
Aside from the logistics Passan discusses in fine detail, neither baseball’s government nor the Major League Baseball Players Association has agreed to any plan under which the game might return for even a portion of 2020. This was baseball government’s formal statement:
MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so. While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan. While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.
The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.
It’s not just a “format for staging games” they have to consider. They’ll have to consider suspending baseball’s already ridiculous broadcast blackout rules. If you think there are fans restless without baseball at all now, just imagine how ornery they’ll become if they can’t watch any single-state-located games.
They’ll also have to consider ways to make a pennant race and a postseason feasible off a circumstantially shortened season. And there have been times past when seasons disrupted turned into the game outsmarting itself. (The 1981 strike, the split season, and the first divisional-series postseason, anyone? Where the two best teams in each National League division didn’t even make the postseason cut?)
There’s talk that includes the possibility of playing seven-innings-a-game doubleheaders, the better to get as close to a full season as possible. Never mind that a key reason why the doubleheader faded away was owners exhausted of losing gates (doubleheaders traditionally charged a single admission to both games) and players not named Ernie (It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two!) Banks exhausted of being exhausted from playing them.
Try this one on if you like. Suspend the wild cards. Especially if it becomes possible to play baseball in its usual venues, not just in Arizona, draw a schedule that enables each league’s teams to play each other in season series twice. Schedule limited interleague play, as contingent upon local or regional reach as feasible. (This could prove problematic for the Braves, but it’s time for baseball’s brain trusts to use, well, their brains.) Assuming baseball can return in June, all this could make a 100-game schedule workable.
Now, just this once, seize the moment. Streamline the postseason at long enough last. Give the division winner with the best season’s record a round-one bye and let the other two winners play a best-of-three division series. Let those winners meet the bye teams in a best-of-five League Championship Series. And let the World Series remain the prime and the only best-of-seven.
You guessed it: I’m sort of (ho ho ho) sneaking in a proposal I’ve long advocated on behalf of de-saturating postseason baseball and making pennant races mean something once again. Aren’t you finally tired of all the stretch drive thrills watching teams fight to the last breath to finish . . . in second place?
(It’ll also address an alarm raised by Clayton Kershaw and others. Who really wants the World Series played near Christmas in “neutral” territory? Jingle ball all the way? Who wants to kill the fun of the combatants playing before their home crowds when scheduled?)
Whether baseball can return in May or even June, this would be the ideal condition in which to try it out. If you think the broadcast ratings might take a jump when the season gets underway at all, think of what’ll happen to them when they’re not drowning in postseason excess. Would it be so terrible if that, too, inspires baseball to restore proper championship competition for non-pandemic seasons to come?
This might also be a time for baseball’s government to re-consider the already execrable plan to contract the minor leagues. If you think the Show’s going to make the nation feel loved again upon its return, just imagine what the minors will do for the hamlets, towns, villages, and smaller cities where they play. Remind yourself while you’re at it that that execrable plan is another reason to believe baseball’s better off without Jeff Luhnow, the Astrogate-deposed general manager whose brainchild the minor league contraction was in the first place.
This much we can guess: Baseball’s return is going to be the biggest morale boost this nation has seen since the game was able to return after the respite imposed by the horror of 9/11. Even those to whom baseball is no great shake will feel comfort that somehow, somewhere, there’s a ball game being played.
You might think it either silly or salacious to lean upon even a fictitious Mafia don for comfort, if not wisdom. But in The Godfather (the novel, not the film) Don Vito Corleone mused how true it was that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward. Baseball has a couple of great chances now to prove how right that is.