There’s a prevailing line of thought right now in the public discourse: baseball, as a sport, is in grave trouble if Major League Baseball doesn’t figure out how to have a 2020 season.
Jayson Stark, last year’s highly deserving Hall of Fame honoree as the J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, has been retweeting, daily, his warning at The Athletic of “don’t drive off that cliff!”
Over at ESPN, Buster Olney wrote a piece last week headlined, “It’s not just the 2020 season at stake, but the future of MLB.”
Before that, there was Tony Blengino at Forbes, with the dire warning, “A Lost 2020 Season Could Be An Existential Threat To Major League Baseball.”
Not to say that there isn’t reason to worry, but as MLB and the MLBPA continue to get nowhere in their negotiations on a return-to-play-scenario, the doomsday prophecies are just expounding on theories about an extremely uncertain future, and there’s also reason to believe that even if a deal doesn’t get reached, baseball will be fine.
There still hasn’t been a day in the United States with fewer than 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 since March 24, and there are plenty of places in America where the pandemic is accelerating. More and more states are reopening, even though we can see from Texas, among others, how disastrous the decision to lift containment protocols too soon can be. And this is very much tied to the sports landscape, as the NBA and other leagues have their eye on resuming in Florida, even as that state’s coronavirus caseload continues to rise.
Imagine, for the moment, baseball not being played in the United States this year, while the NBA does get back on the court. There are a couple of ways that this scenario plays out.
One possibility is that it all goes off without a hitch, in which case basketball takes center stage in late September and early October with the conference finals and NBA Finals. That’s usually baseball’s time to shine, and sure, it would be a bad look for baseball to be totally out of the picture while basketball is the main focus of the sports world at its prime time of year … but would it really be much worse of a look for baseball than MLB being completely overshadowed by the NBA in the early fall? As it is, the World Series can’t compete, ratings-wise, against the NFL regular season.
Even if baseball did come back, you’d wind up with an acceleration of “baseball is dying” storylines after Lakers-Bucks does way bigger TV numbers than whatever division series matchups come out of the fugazi season. MLB’s latest proposal was a 76-game campaign, and, well, last year after 76 games, the eventual game-out-of-last Colorado Rockies were 40-36, while the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals were 37-39.
So, in the event that everything goes smoothly, MLB is not going to look good whether or not baseball is being played. This rush of “baseball needs to come back” takes ignores what the end product of a shortened season would be. Obviously, as a baseball fan, it would be nice to watch baseball this year, but if you think this year’s NBA champion is going to get an asterisk, it’ll be nothing compared to the legions of complainers about the illegitimacy of the 2020 World Series winner.
But what happens if the return of the NBA or other leagues doesn’t go smoothly? That’s the other possibility. If basketball comes back and players, coaches, and other personnel get sick — or worse — then the NBA is going to have a lot of explaining to do about what went wrong and why the decision was made to risk people’s health in the name of fulfilling TV contracts and making money in the middle of a pandemic that was mishandled from the federal government on down.
In this scenario, an absent Major League Baseball would look a whole lot better, wouldn’t it? Or, at least, the MLBPA would look a whole lot better, because right now management’s idea is to have players sign an “acknowledgement of risk” waiver before getting back on the field. If the union continues to stand up against entering an unsafe work environment, and other leagues wind up demonstrating just how unsafe it is, then baseball, thanks to its players, comes out of all this with much less to answer for — with a strong showing by the union, standing up for collectively bargained workplace safety, granting baseball a kind of connection with the public that will be important in rebuilding institutional trust, if they’re smart enough to press that point. Not only that, but by abandoning this season, MLB might be able to proceed in 2021 with a normal calendar, while the NBA and NHL have to continue to make adjustments after however deep into the summer their 2019-20 seasons go.
If baseball doesn’t happen this year, it will be framed as the owners and players being unable to come to an agreement, and while there will be truth to that, it would be far less damaging to the league than abandoning a 70 percent completed season as happened in 1994. Back then, baseball was alone in labor unrest. Now, there’s so much else going on in the world, it’s just another item on a laundry list of things that aren’t happening. Nobody’s going to concerts now, or the movies, or even to the sporting events that are happening, because they’re being played behind closed doors.
If baseball comes back, it’ll just be some fresh content for TV, a shadow of what it normally is, and with a lot of unprecedented risks, including players getting hurt after going through spring training, taking several months off, then returning to play a compressed schedule at full intensity. It’s not going to feel like baseball as we know it until we’ve got a hot dog in our hand at the ballpark again, and it’s important to differentiate between the health of Major League Baseball as a corporate entity and baseball as a sport. That’s the other thing that’s being forgotten in this narrative, that baseball is being played in Taiwan and South Korea right now — and a spotlight on baseball there is, in fact, good for the overall health of the game as it grows internationally. A canceled 2020 season will not be the end of baseball, and just because we want our favorite players and teams back doesn’t mean it needs to happen.