Baseball’s Disastrous Spring Feels Like an Existential Crisis

The prevailing mood around baseball right now. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On Monday night, ESPN ran a two-hour special called “The Return of Sports.” The introduction to the program was shot in the Olympics-heartwarming-backstory, soft-focus style of morning television: There were images of children playing with their parents in the backyard, empty stadiums and arenas around the country, and professional athletes protesting the death of George Floyd, all set to a tinkly piano soundtrack reminiscent of the music played over the “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars. The message was one of hope, of release. Here was ESPN, so desperate to have something other than cornhole on its airwaves, officially opening the door: Sports are coming back, and here’s how they’re gonna do it, and we’re going to air them, and it’s going to be so exciting.

The warm feelings lasted roughly 45 seconds. Then the show’s host, Mike Greenberg, introduced his first guest, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. And all the air was sucked right out of the room.

Baseball fans already knew what was coming: ESPN reporter Jeff Passan had reported earlier in the day that Manfred, who had just five days earlier said “unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year,” with “100 percent certainty,” had changed his tune, telling Greenberg in the pretaped segment that he’s “not confident we can play” and calling the players’ union’s plan to file a grievance for more money a “bad-faith tactic” that “makes it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances.” We had braced ourselves for Manfred to say these words, but it was still somehow much more painful to actually watch him do it.

What had changed during those five days? If you’re just showing up here, it’s a little complicated. But as succinctly as I can put it: The MLB players’ union, tired of receiving three versions of the same return-to-play proposals (as amusingly dramatized by Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen) — proposals that themselves were an attempted renegotiation of an agreement the players already thought was locked in — finally called the owners’ bluff. On Saturday, MLBPA chief Tony Clark simply said, “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.” Baseball fans feared that this would mean a shortened season, because owners did not want to play players’ full pro rata salaries for too many games, fearing they’d lose money with no fans in the stands. The conventional wisdom was that Manfred would exercise his power to set the schedule to roughly 52 games, further ramping up hostilities between the two sides before the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. It’d be bad, but there would at least be some baseball. But once Manfred dropped the “not confident we can play,” everything changed. The question became not how many games baseball would play this year but how many games baseball would play next year. Or when the next game would be played at all.

As Manfred delivered the dire news, Greenberg looked stunned to discover that his feel-good show had turned sour. He’d get an immediate reprieve when the other commissioners came on and discussed their leagues’ issues with returning from the coronavirus, which all seemed much more manageable than baseball’s plight. For Roger Goodell and the others, it must have felt like having a comic bomb onstage right before you go on.

As someone who deeply loves baseball — who has loved baseball longer than I’ve loved just about anything else in his life — the whole thing was harrowing to watch. It was a night to text all my baseball-fan friends to make sure they were okay, if they’d survived the earthquake — if their house was still standing. And I couldn’t help but notice that I was texting a lot fewer people than you would have thought, and a lot fewer than I probably would have a few years ago.

Baseball may still figure a way out of this quagmire; it has crawled its way out of messes before. But a labor fight during a global pandemic — with the two sides in such open combat that several players and coaches testing positive for COVID-19 became just another thing to fight about — sure seems a bigger kettle of fish than ever before. And something feels different this time. We’ve seen a lot of internecine disputes before in baseball, and in sports. But they’ve never felt this gross. And, crucially: They’ve never felt this irrelevant.

One of the most disorienting aspects of this pandemic, these three-plus months now that continue to rattle, upend, reconfigure, and transmogrify every aspect of American life, is learning that, as it turns out, there are certain things you can live without. If you would have told most of us that we’d go three-plus months without seeing our parents or our closest friends, eating out at a restaurant, seeing our therapist, or going to worship, most of us would have said we wouldn’t be able to stand it. But we’ve all adjusted in our own ways. Those early days where this all felt novel, perhaps even good for us — I’ll cook more! I’ll write that novel! Finally time to watch Bosch! — have faded; now we’re all just stuck with the dulling realization that this is just what life is now and what it’s going to be for quite a while to come. I still miss my corner bar. But I’m not pretending I’m going there anytime soon anymore, either. I’ve made my peace with it.

And one thing I’ve noticed less and less of in recent weeks is people pining for a “return to normal.” One reason for this is the understanding, particularly among white people witnessing (and participating in) the remarkably resilient Black Lives Matter protest movement, that “normal” is something that we shouldn’t all be aspiring to return to. But there has been an undeniable general shifting of priorities, too. There’s a numbness that has set in, and even a resistance to comfort foods that in the past might have helped. The new Christopher Nolan movie is no longer a centerpiece summer event; it’s just another line item that means a lot more to Hollywood studios than it does to everybody else. Celebrities are mostly useful now to be mocked for their tone-deaf attempts to be “helpful.” Media executives have lost their glamour; they’re just rich pricks carrying their own golf clubs. It turns out there is, all of a sudden, just a bunch of shit that doesn’t matter. That’s the new normal we all live with.

Sports are starting to feel a little bit like that, too: Like a luxury we maybe shouldn’t be trying to afford right now, a distraction from something we shouldn’t be taking our eyes off for a second. (This is the argument that former NBAer, and lifelong friend of George Floyd, Stephen Jackson has kept making.) And that’s not to mention that we still have no idea how safe these games are going to be. And just like in the “real” world, the pandemic and the protests have exposed much of the inequity in the sports industrial complex many of us were all too eager to mostly ignore before all this. One example: Some colleges seem to be demanding their players sign waivers (calling them “pledges”) before they begin practicing to play a sport that brings in billions of dollars a year but doesn’t pay them a dime. It sinks one into a moral morass to be cheering for any sport to come back right now. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want sports to return. It just means you’ve got to actually think about it for a while — for once. It makes it tougher to see sports as the distraction they are inherently designed to be.

And that’s the case in sports that are (mostly) unified in a desire to come back, ones that aren’t spending the first ten minutes of a feel-good show produced by the Bristol mothership ripping the hearts out of the chests of their most dedicated fans. Baseball has not fallen as far down the sports hierarchy in recent years as naysayers like to argue it has, but it has fallen, and its increasingly elderly (and white) fanbase is an ominous sign: There may be less room for error here than it had in the past, and certainly less than its leaders seem to believe it has now.

I learned to love sports because I loved baseball first. I’ve written books about it, and I spend weeks every year visiting stadiums around the country. My taciturn, midwestern father and I talk about baseball in a way that we’ve never been able to talk about anything else. And I’ve afflicted my 9-year-old son with this disease. Three months into all this, he still comes upstairs every morning to ask me if I know when baseball is coming back yet. I write about baseball professionally, for this publication and several others, including itself. I had a few pieces in the World Series program last year, and seeing my name and my words that close to my favorite sporting event on the planet has the 7-year-old version of me doing backflips. An alarmingly high percentage of the most memorable moments of my life involve baseball in some way, shape, or form. This is my sport.

But it doesn’t feel like mine right now. Not only does it not feel like mine, it feels sort of stupid — even actively harmful — to even let any of this stuff into one’s heart at all. One of the most famous quotes in baseball history comes from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” That wait was made even longer Monday night, and for baseball loyalists, it was a 1,000-yard stare into the void. When the people who truly love baseball see the game being treated like this, in the midst of this moment in global history, who can blame them for wanting to look away? There are so many battles to be fought right now. If this is the fight baseball wants to have right now, let them. And if there’s no one waiting by the window when they’re finally ready to return this time? Well then: That will be their new normal — the one they’ll have to live with too.

MLB’s Disastrous Spring Feels Like an Existential Crisis