Friday, May 22, 2020

FenwayNation Point/Counterpoint: Just Say "NO" To Baseball 2020

by Gary Morgenstein 

The Lords of Baseball have assembled an ambitious and complicated plan for the 2020 season that’s rich in safety measures. Thank goodness for that. Not a single player or anyone associated with the game should be exposed to coronavirus. Make that points 1-10. So let’s play ball.

I say no. Presenting a season which makes a mockery out of the essence of the game will only hasten its demise. Baseball’s leisurely pageantry makes it different from all other sports. Now before I’m trolled, I have the utmost respect for the athleticism and the fandom of all sports. But they ain’t like baseball.

Because baseball is slower, it has time for the dramatic human pauses. For the runner and first baseman to exchange pleasantries. The manager to run onto the field and argue jaw-to-jaw with the umpire. The infielder to dart closely behind the baserunner at second. And yes, what is baseball if not a geyser of sunflower seeds.

Now I realize it’s pretty darn gripping to watch the linebackers coach bark into his headset on the sidelines. Or a basketball head coach confabbing over a clipboard during a timeout. But that doesn’t compare to life in the dugout. Huddling over how to handle the pitcher’s slider or a replay of the swing which just deposited the ball into the left-center bleachers.  The very eccentricity of baseball provides the antiquated charm which other sports lack. Social distancing measures requiring teammates to sit in the stands will destroy that.

An 82-game season is an aberration. The entire purpose of a baseball season is its languid longevity. That chill in your bones at an April night game when you’ve scarfed down your fifth hot chocolate. Those first warm breezes of the June afternoon. The tropical suffocation of July and August and then, September, when the pennant race rushes to a close.

Baseball needs its ebbs and flows, the hot and cold streaks, the panic of injuries to front-line players and the joys of unknowns becoming stars. It’s a long distance marathon in a brisk walk. The shortened season changes everything. What’ll be the importance of records? A league-leading 21 homers? Topping the majors with 14 wins? You can throw out the stats, forever asterisked and useless to a game which measures itself against the past. Let’s not even get started on the profit-driven expanded March Madness-like playoffs and an inevitably sullied World Series champion. Isn’t the stigma of the Houston Astros bad enough?

Think. No real road trips. No concerns about how your sturdy boys will hold up playing a tough 10 games out West while the nearest rivals have a cushy home stand against hapless foes. Games played only within the regional divisions. Fun. What’s the point of an American and National League anymore? Is complete realignment around the corner? There’s lots more money in, say, the Mets and Yankees playing each other 18 times. Until it gets old real fast and they’ve destroyed the fresh appeal of inter-city rivalries.

The distinction of the DH being used in just the AL will be gone, probably forever. With the abbreviated spring trainings and 30-man rosters, will anyone risk precious starters going longer than five innings? Imagine the impact of regular four-hour games from endless trips to the bullpen.  Three hour plus games are killing the sport now.

And then there were no fans. Sorry, but attending a baseball game is also different from other sports. From kids rushing to retrieve a foul ball and the cry of “getcha ice cold beer” to standing for the seventh inning stretch (started by President William Howard Taft more than a century ago, so there), the sport’s appeal is governed as much by what happens off the field as on.  Shivering half-naked Cheeseheads don’t quite cut it.

Besides, what is a baseball game without cheers? Boos? Rhythmic clapping? Chants of “Let’s Go (Fill in Your Team). No home team advantage.  Don’t other sports need that? Then why’s the Super Bowl  played at a neutral site?  Can players possibly be juiced enough to play at full tilt before empty stands? And why does anyone think that’d make for interesting telecasts? Oh right. We can CGI in fans. Goody.

Then why is baseball desperately trying to go forward with the 2020 season? Because they love the fans and want to bring normalcy and a respite from the gloom of the pandemic.  Sure and I gotta couple bridges here in Brooklyn I can let you have for a song.

It’s all about the money. Big surprise. We’re a nation built on ideals and governed by greed. But this is counter-intuitive profit at the expense of baseball. Do you think the daily ESPN highlights will be diving catches in left center field? Nah. A manager arguing with an ump six feet away.  Baseball will be made to look silly. What the game needs is more attention for its exquisitely subtle skills, the intricacy of strategy, the genteel pace concealing an extraordinary number of simultaneous and complex actions which might actually require attention be paid to the field, not the most recent text or tweet.

Okay, here goes another Boomer pining for the glory days. Dats right, guilty as charged. Baseball is all about the link to the past, remembering the past, respecting the past. What we see on the playing field is pretty much what we’ve always seen. Baseball is the sports version of the Constitution.  It evolves, as it should, to meet changing times. But the heart of the laws and the soul of the game remains the same.

It’s supposed to be a hotter than usual summer.  Instead of giving us these video games pretending to be major league baseball, the Lords of Baseball should provide clinics for kids across the country, donating equipment. Letting youngsters use major league facilities; safely of course. Maybe some of those kids would contract wonderment at standing at home plate at Yankee Stadium or patrolling before the Green Monster. With the appropriate app about the history of the game. There are always amendments.

Players could donate their time by conducting clinics to win back this lost baseball generation for next season and beyond. Perhaps the players would remember why they became ballplayers.  It wasn’t about the money, guys.  For the owners, sure, always. But not for those of you who put on that uniform. Who recall their first bat, first glove, first game, like all us sentimental purists do, whether we could ever hit a curve ball or not.

In a society slowly emerging from a devastating and deadly lockdown, we deserve more than a parody. We’ve worn masks long enough. We deserve the real thing.

Gary Morgenstein is the author of the critically acclaimed dystopian baseball novel A Mound Over Hell. Book Two of the series, A Fastball for Freedom, will be published by BHC Press in 2021.