Baseball has traditionally been one of the most synonymously American pastimes throughout this country’s history. Legends like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson were more than just athletes – they were integral parts of American popular culture. During times of peace and comfort, we had baseball to turn to. During times of unrest and fear, we had baseball to turn to. However, during a time when this country needs a uniting force more than ever, baseball won’t be there for us.
Barring a miracle, there won’t be baseball played in 2020.
While that sentence is devastating to read, some good will come out of this, and it’s important to realize that not everything about this doomsday scenario is bad. Firstly, the lack of a 2020 season means that there will be no World Series, making the Washington Nationals the longest world champions of the 21st century so far – they’ll hold the title throughout all of 2020 and a majority of the calendar year 2021, before a potential new champion is crowned.
But much more importantly, the cancellation of the season is bittersweet news for players, who would have gotten the short end of the stick in any compromise. MLB owners, foreseeing a draconian decrease in revenue for 2020 due to a lack of ticket and concession sales, called for revenue sharing with players. This would have funneled more money to the owners, who happen to be some of the wealthiest men in North America and include the heirs to TD Ameritrade and Little Caesars, multiple media company owners, hedge fund and oil executives, and the Canadian equivalent of AT&T. Lost in the balance would be the players, who’d be subject to an increased risk of COVID-19 yet having their normal salaries halved to help the owners turn something merely close to a profit this year. Plans to restart baseball also included isolating players away from their families at remote locations in Arizona and Florida, an idea which doesn’t bode well with less pay and a higher chance to contract the virus. It’s important to remember that baseball players are employees who sign contracts, are unionized, and have the right to collective bargaining. If your employer said that they were going to cut your pay amidst a global pandemic just so the CEO would be able to turn a profit and you’d be at a higher risk of contracting the disease, you wouldn’t find that to be very fair, and wouldn’t support efforts to go back to work.
However, while the players do benefit from the lack of revenue sharing, it is very evident that many are disappointed by the lack of a season. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Sean Doolittle are just three Nationals who have been vocal about this, and all three are proponents of a fair deal for the players. It’s also important to recognize that Commissioner Rob Manfred is not the reason why the season won’t be played, and that calls for his resignation or firing are wrong. Manfred is in charge of negotiations between the players’ union and the owners, and it’s increasingly evident that the owners are the ones who are holding up the negotiations for their precious revenue sharing. The fault of this probable lost season lies with them, not with Manfred.
However, from a fan’s perspective, this news is truly devastating. I started this piece off by talking about two baseball legends – Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Babe Ruth was a hero to many Americans during the Great Depression of the early 30s, and brought smiles and hope to many people during the tough economic times. Jackie Robinson’s entry into the league served as a model for non-violent integration during a contentious time in American history – the very beginning of the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Like during their careers, we live in similar times. The fallout of the pandemic has led to economic hardships for millions of Americans, and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many other black and brown Americans by police has led to a reckoning about race relations in America. But unlike those times, we have no baseball to help us heal from those divisions and hardships we are all faced with at this time.
What’s even worse is that following the 2021 season, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires. The 2021 offseason will very likely look a lot like the last few weeks of back-and-forth between the owners and the union, and if things go awry like they did in this instance, there’ll be another lockout that could cause the 2022 season to be lost, as well. These failed negotiations set a very bad precedent for the upcoming CBA negotiations, as it shows the inability of the owners and players to find a middle ground compromise.
But this also makes the grim reality of baseball’s waning popularity more pressing for the league to sort out. Basketball is returning in August, with the Wizards playing at Disney World for the duration of the season. Soccer, football, and hockey have started to develop feasible plans for restarting games, and the Caps are poised to have a first-round bye in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Heck, John Oliver’s segment on sports and COVID-19 made many of my friends legitimately excited about marble racing games on Youtube. But lost in all of this is baseball. Sports fans, including baseball fans, who are eager to watch real action instead of the fourth month of ESPN’s coverage of the Tom Brady contract, will turn to these other sports instead of baseball. And as baseball loses popularity with younger generations, expect this dynamic to be exacerbated by the lack of a season amidst the pandemic.
So, the reality is that baseball’s near and distant futures are grim. But this moment presents a defining moment of truth for the sport. Is it likely that an agreement will be reached before it’s too late? No. But this moment allows the relevant people to learn from this instance and make sure it doesn’t happen again come 2021. Now is also the perfect time to change how the league works. Maybe allow fun bats or cleats, in a way for players to express themselves on the field while also playing the game they love. I’m a baseball purist and a vehement opponent of enacting a universal DH, but I will admit that sweeping changes to the institution of baseball might peak the interest of non-traditional baseball fans and help make the sport more popular. There are reasons why this moment is sad and strange. But this isn’t the first time baseball’s been cut short by a labor dispute, and it sure won’t be the last. I think we ought to embrace the potential for change and look forward to baseball’s eventual return, whenever it is safe and fair for both owners and players.