The geek in me, somewhere beneath layers of cynical crust, cannot wait to see Francisco Lindor in a market that deserves him. Or Kim Ng make her first major deadline deal. Or the Blue Jays, rejected at the Canadian border like Lil Wayne and Keith Richards, play home games at their 8,500-seat spring training facility. Or Trevor Bauer throw a gunked-up, four-seam fastball with an elevated spin rate toward the dreads of Fernando Tatis Jr., gaslighting a rivalry formerly soggier than a bag of fish tacos.
“I’ll speak for the people of San Diego: There’s nothing we can’t do,” said Peter Seidler, chairman of the Padres, who are trying to dethrone the Dodgers after decades of not trying at all — their .462 winning percentage since 1969 ranking last in the majors, embarrassing even Ron Burgundy.
The fan in me wants to know if Tony La Russa will need naps during night games, if Jose Altuve is forever lost in sign-stealing purgatory, if Mike Trout can ride the reborn Shohei Ohtani to October, if Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna have descended from a neighboring universe, if the Shortstop Wars featuring Tatis and Lindor and Trevor Story and Corey Seager and Trea Turner are Major League Baseball’s exhilarating answer to the NFL’s quarterbacking rage. Will the Yankees, in a city of elite medical care, find doctors and trainers worthy of their payroll? Will those insufferable Boston loons, incensed not to have won a World Series in three whole years, burn down a billboard near Fenway Park — purchased by a Dodgers troll — thanking the Red Sox for gifting Mookie Betts?
“I don’t care if you’re working at Waffle House or for the Red Sox or for the Dodgers. You should just get paid what you’re worth,” said Betts, who wore a $3,500 blazer and $1,495 Dodger blue loafers for a GQ profile.
And the adventurer in me wants to be at the ballpark, any ballpark, for the first real Opening Day in 104 weeks. If that journey takes me to the nearest option, the COVID-19 vaccination site once known as Dodger Stadium, I will sprint to the closest stand and order a Dodger Dog. I will not eat it without first gazing at it longingly, making certain it’s charred appropriately with the proper bun texture before devouring it like Joey Chestnut on a bender. Then I’ll head to whatever seat they assign me, distanced despite the two vaccine jabs in my left arm, to sit among the folks whose absence sucked life from the sport amid the pandemic disruptions of 2020.
“It was the worst, to be honest,” the Cubs’ Javy Báez said of the numbing fan-less season. “It was worse than facing a pitcher in spring training in the back field. I didn’t like it at all.”
Yet the realist in me, the one who views sports as a massive industry and not as a sandbox for media people who never grew up, knows that 2021 isn’t about fairy tales, poetry or even basic story lines. It’s tempting, in fact, to just send everybody home before the first pitch. You know, lock the owners and players in a rubber room — with wild tigers and deadly snakes poised to attack for strategic urgency — and not let them out until they decide how to amicably divide tens of billions of dollars in future revenues. Bloodied by interminable crises and scandals for eons, Major League Baseball has reached a breaking point that reduces the events of an arriving season to afterthoughts. Simply, if the billionaires can’t hunker down with the multi-millionaires and mutually grasp the destructive ramifications of an approaching labor impasse — with the collective bargaining agreement expiring at season’s end — then this sport deserves to fade into some dark abyss.
As the diseased cow of American entertainment, baseball can’t afford a 2022 work stoppage. Otherwise, in a precipitous cultural decline that started with the 1994 strike and continued through steroids and cheating disgraces, a sport once known grandly as the national pastime will slip-slide into a niche mode — closer to hockey and soccer on the U.S. relevance meter than almighty pro and college football. Only by the questionable grace of broadcast network enablers — ESPN and Turner have signed new, multi-year deals and joined Fox as marketing buttresses — does MLB continue as a national player, even as every autumn establishes new lows for postseason ratings and new highs for average viewing age (59, opposed to 42 for NBA games). What baseball does best — fun at the ballpark — also has taken a huge hit, with attendance drops in each of the four seasons before the pandemic.
The warring parties could be pulled further apart by the explosive racial climate in Georgia. After the state legislature restricted voter access, a law that President Biden described as “Jim Crow in the 21st century,” Manfred should be working furiously to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. Already, Players Association executive director Tony Clark has suggested players will boycott the game, but knowing how MLB operates in slow motion, don’t be shocked if Manfred lets the Masters take the critical abuse — does anyone believe the Augusta National fathers, for all their progressive strides, would devote a nanosecond to the issue? — and stays the course for July 13 at Truist Park. That would not be a positive step in labor talks.
How tragic that a traveling company with so many dynamic stars — more than the NBA, when you think about it — can’t get out of its own way. For this morass, the owners are to blame, as always. So nakedly hellbent on financial ambition, they lost touch with the 21st century and hired a commissioner, Rob Manfred, who somehow is more obtuse than his Mr. Magoo-like predecessor, Bud Selig. Why, in a world moving at technological warp speed, would the powers-that-be insist on putting jackrabbits into a continuing turtle race? We’ve heard for years that the commissioner’s office was concerned about pace-of-play issues and would unilaterally install a 20-second pitch clock if the Players Association didn’t cooperate. Even though such a clock has been used in the minor leagues since 2015, we’re still waiting for implementation at the big-league level … because the union isn’t budging and owners are complicit, actually preferring that games plod on because it’s good for business.
No event that averages three hours and seven minutes — up almost a half-hour from the pre-Selig years — is good for business. While the smart sports leagues accelerated the pace of action with Lamborghini infusions, from NFL offensive explosions to NBA three-point madness, baseball decided a cement mixer made more sense. In an era-defining Sports Illustrated takedown, Tom Verducci found alarming bits of data that support the dawdling: Since 2011, players take 2.6 seconds more between pitches and put the ball in play on only 15.8 percent of the pitches — meaning, 259 pitches are thrown a game without a ball in play while an average of four minutes pass without a ball in play. More Verducci: “Last season set per-game records for highest strikeout rate for a 15th straight year (23.4%). It also set per-game records for most pitchers (8.9), most hit batters (0.92), fewest sacrifice hits (0.14), and length of nine-inning games (3:07). Batting average last season (.245) and stolen bases the past two seasons (0.94 and 0.98) sunk to their lowest rates since 1972.”
We watch baseball to be stimulated, right? Instead, we are being tortured, wasting our time and energy and money on an unwatchable slog. What are we supposed to do during those 259 pitches? The owners want us to eat $8 hot dogs and drink $15 beers at the ballpark. Or, if not already asleep at home, to catch glimpses of advertising signage behind home plate and throughout the ballpark. They do not care that games are longer than “The Irishman” or most one-way domestic flights in the U.S. They have allowed the preeminent sport of the 20th century to crash early in a new millennium.
Strikeouts, walks, home runs — that’s baseball. In the concluding Game 6 of the World Series, only two balls were put into play in the final 28 minutes.
A recipe for ennui.
“Three true outcomes — that kind of gets old. That’s where I think the game kind of lacks,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon, who would be a better commissioner than Manfred.
Only too happy to participate in the slowdown was the new breed of front-office thinkers, prioritizing nerd-alytics and keeping bosses happy with shady maneuvers such as the manipulation of service time. How ironic that the most accomplished bro-dude exec, Theo Epstein, has been summoned by Manfred to address the waning entertainment value. “I take some responsibility for that because the executives, like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures, have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game,” said Epstein, now a consultant to the commissioner after breaking historic curses with the Red Sox and Cubs.
But it’s much too late to fix what ails baseball when Manfred and Selig lost one generation and are about to lose another. Deadening the baseball this year is a lost cause thanks to Manfred, who was responsible for an absurd, six-year home-run boom that diluted and ruined the coolest thrill in sports. Limiting defensive shifts is long overdue, but making infield bags larger to encourage base-stealing — hell, does anyone even remember Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock … or Barry Bonds before he sold out to PEDs and power records?
The lords also want bunts. Who knows how to bunt anymore?
As I’ve pointed out, maybe 10 teams care about winning a World Series this year. The other 20 do not, including foundational franchises such as the Cubs and Red Sox, which makes for a lopsided, painful imbalance that drains competitive integrity. The state of MLB must be pretty dismal when Donnie Baseball himself is grumbling. “I watched a lot of the playoff games after we were eliminated and quite honestly it was a little hard to watch,” said Don Mattingly, manager of the Marlins. “There was nothing going on. Strikeout, strikeout, home run. It was hard to watch. It tells me we have to find a way to make our game move.”
The owners and players should try thinking, for once, outside the batter’s box. They should focus not on themselves but on the sport they’ve collectively wrecked and the dwindling number of Americans who still care. And before the owners even begin to deal with a union that doesn’t trust them, they must settle their own internal differences over revenue sharing, lest the number of tankers continue to overwhelm the serious teams.
I’ve tried my best. I’ve listed several reasons to watch baseball in 2021. I’ve tried to be positive.
But why invest in baseball when baseball won’t invest in you? Why embrace an industry that again holds a knife at America’s back, ready to plunge it only minutes after a champion is crowned and the TV money is banked?
The season is here, perhaps the last baseball we’ll see for a long time. Indulge at your own risk.