MLB imagines itself as a reflection of America. The first week of the 2020 season proved its fantasy in the worst way.
Really, I realized MLB wasn’t ready for this moment when BLM paint on pitching mounds around the league on Opening Day gave way to corporate logos by game two. That was before multiple games were called off because of positive COVID-19 tests. The season is only a week old.
The Marlins, Phillies, Yankees and Orioles have already lost games due to positive tests, and the Nationals, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Brewers will join that list this weekend. And while all these games are officially postponed, a 60-game sprint packed so tightly leaves little room for make-up baseball without drastic concessions.
This season always felt off, like the year that hosts it. MLB wanted to get a product out, so they hacked away at their sport to put something on the field so that all the signage could be seen. What they ended up with were 60-game schedules to be played in 66-ish days, regional ‘leagues’ that still allowed travel and exposure, new lineup rules, new roster rules, an in-season change to the playoff structure, an in-season change to doubleheaders, an anemic display of support for justice against government-sanctioned brutality, an inability to keep a global pandemic out of the ballgame. The Show is trying desperately to go on, play-acting a competent league while hoping that a roaring fire gets drowned out by one crucial message: baseball is back. MLB wasn’t ready for this moment; further, they seem not to care, instead carving out a niche as the ‘stick to sports’ league, the ‘I just want x-ball back’ league, the ‘check the shittiness of the world at our lines’ league.
Baseball wants to be the reprieve league. But it, like the rest of us, can’t escape reality.
Between Spring Training and Summer Camp, a sick America burned, and its pastime similarly combusted. We just lived through what felt like a lifetime without baseball because there were more important things to worry about. There still are, and it made sense that if MLB came back, it would return tangled with the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial inequality and systemic brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Sports cannot be—and may never again be—an escape: so long as they reflect us (and so many do claim baseball holds an inherent quality of American reflection), they need to keep a record of us. With us, not apart from us. MLB is trying to slot into a new normal neatly, yet the country it claims to mirror never wholly adjusted (if it adjusted at all.) Baseball took a break when a sick America burned, and as this great country pretends to heal, so too did baseball stir. It’s an act all around.
Baseball basks in its status as America’s Pastime and celebrates its aggrandizing mythology of reflection, but this season has shown that the league is uncomfortable with its folklore. The battle against coronavirus has been, among other things, an economic catastrophe for so many, and baseball’s version of financial strife was just as rotten, just as venomous. Taking a stab at living life during a pandemic has been, among other things, difficult most of the time and irresponsible at all others, and baseball’s attempt at normalcy has been equally challenging. The fight for racial equality and an end to unchecked police brutality has led to, among other things, belated introspection for the culture and the individual, a forceful check of everyone’s complicity that demands you be uncomfortable to see the problem. Yet baseball struggled to say and support the simplest thing: black lives are under attack and black lives matter. If baseball reflects any American trait, it’s nostalgia, all three versions: the pure one, the ugly one, and the advertising one. The race to be the flag-bearer of live sports in America and offer up a slice of a time before the end times left the league exposed and unprepared for the actual present.
It seems that baseball can’t make anyone happy right now, except by just existing, which keeps fans and business partners happy and probably does the job. But by downplaying the world’s problems around the sport and acting as if foul poles are impermeable boundaries, they’ve expanded the fracture that’s become the true American plague. After only one week, baseball has become so divisive, so toxic, and in a way, so genuinely American. Any call for more significant effort as an ally to social reform becomes lousy with ‘shut up and dribble’ types; any suggestion that the entire season should be shelved comes with accusations that baseball fans hate baseball.
MLB is in the midst of an awful year. The season’s first week has been a shitshow, but the crapfest has been running around the clock since way before the first pitch. A quick recap: the Astros’ punishment for sign-stealing and its fallout, which felt lenient at the time and continues to produce anger anytime we’re reminded of it; bitter bad-faith negotiations in the wake of a shortened, closed-door season; a delayed response to George Floyd’s murder; the politics of protest methodology that followed Floyd’s murder; a stunted draft and the cancelation of the Minor League season after proposing a contraction of the league-affiliated Minor League structure; and a garbage-person Commissioner who seems to hate the sport he presides over.
All in the same calendar year.
To be clear: I’m happy baseball is back. I wish it came back more safely and with more bass in its voice. I don’t think wanting baseball to continue in the wake of positive tests and postponed games makes you a Benghazi truther, and I don’t think to suggest the season be canceled, or that MLB should have done more in the aftermath of the defining civil rights movement of our time, makes you a lib snowflake. We defend what we love; we yearn for it to be around us and available to us. But we also criticize what we love, and we should do so dynamically, within the fluidity of evolving context.
‘Baseball is back!’ sounds wonderful because 2020 is anti-gravity. MLB thought it was ready to put the ground back beneath our feet. They were wrong.
Khurram Kalim is the senior writer at Bronx to Bushville.