Of course it’s not the last Opening Day this week. There will be a baseball season after 2021. It’s likely that it will be in 2022. But it could not be! You can’t imagine that MLB owners and the MLBPA would lose a full season and another World Series to a work stoppage. But also, you can’t rule it out. You know these guys, and you know it’s entirely possible.
And I’m biased. You probably know that by now too, but if you don’t, the Cubs have killed almost all enthusiasm I would normally have for the start of baseball season. Every year before this, except for last year obviously, there was a giant feeling of security when this week would start. Security in that in just a few days’
time, every day for six months would have baseball in it. There wouldn’t be barren nights or days. The main thing about baseball is that it’s “there.” It’s always with you, and at times it never leaves you alone. You can take a break for a day or a week, but when you come back it’s there just as it was. It’s ever-present.
Now, baseball being “there” just feels like a burden. Again, I’m biased. I have next to no interest in watching the Cubs, and your fandom is always the gateway to the wider baseball world. Those who just watch baseball dispassionately are weirdos. They probably don’t drink either. Can’t be trusted. There are still familiar pangs going off now, decades of muscle memory about the imminent season. But then I remember that I won’t have Yu Darvish to watch or that I will have Eric Sogard instead of Kolten Wong to watch, and I quiet them all. That daily fight between what I’m used to and what I know and feel now already seems exhausting. Thank god the Marquee app is something I have to separately choose to watch instead of a channel I have to scroll by. Makes it easier.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this. How many sets of fans are genuinely excited for the season to start again? Especially with limited crowds to start? It’s really only about a quarter of fans, I would think. And I know the phenomena I’m dealing with is something that Royals fans, for instance, have always known. Their World Series team was busted within a year or two. They accepted that as “The Way” for most of their lives. But should they? I certainly don’t think it should be “The Way” here. The Ricketts family certainly are the worst of the worst, and doing anything in service of them makes me want to bathe in acid. But they’re certainly not the only ownership loathed by its own fans, and they all have gotten exponentially more loathsome in recent years. So many fans know they’re lurking in the background of any game we watch or story we read. Tuning in to see Kyle Hendricks, a true joy to me for the past five years, now feels like I’m losing. That I’m giving in.
Other fans have their players and traditions that were pillars of their lives that are not tainted. But at the same time, we were here first, right? Why should we be robbed of something that meant more to us than a balance sheet? But again, this is the daily debate we’re all going to have starting Thursday, and it just seems so tiring.
Beyond the Cubs, every baseball fan has a feeling of something truly broken with the game at the moment. The lack of competitive desire from so many teams. The chore that the product can be to watch at times. The rancor between players and owners. The constant tug of war between the younger generation of players and fans (if the latter even exists) and the previous generations. The inescapable feeling that baseball might not be able to arrest its slide away from relevance.
And it’s all coming to a head. We know that all of this will be addressed after this season. The CBA runs out, and there’s no way the negotiation of a new one will be anything short of heinous. There are too many changes needed that are too big for them not to be. The players have to ensure that more teams actually try, and more teams pay them what they’ve earned and are worth.
And we know that will come at a cost. Whether it’s a salary cap or salary floor or expanded playoffs and universal DH, there will be massive changes. What will be the pound of flesh the owners want?
And we know owners salivate over the idea of a lockout. They always win lockouts. They will remain obscenely rich without baseball income for what is a short length of their timeline, and their franchise values will still continue to grow. Players can’t last nearly as long, and always break in some way. Their timeline isn’t nearly as long. If it goes that way, how will owners continue to break the game in search of the next dollar in front of them instead of the five down the road? The mind reels.
Both sides will have to figure out how to improve the game on the field. The strikeout-launch angle brand is not one that’s going to attract more eyeballs. But can they? The opening exchanges are not encouraging. Banning the shift only rewards the approach of lift and launch. If it’s grounders through the holes people want, there are plenty of holes in the shifts now. Batters just don’t take them.
Can they get to the real problems, i.e velocity and spin becoming unmanageable for hitters at 60’6”? We’ll see. We know that the game itself will look different come 2022...or whenever they’re back on the field after the Commissioner’s Trophy is awarded next October.
So this is it. This is the last Opening Day of this era. In some ways, it feels like the last Opening Day of whatever fandom I have left. I’m not the only one. The idea of baseball-less summers, or severely reduced, is weird and scary to me. And yet, that’s what it feels like Thursday afternoon will propel me toward.