Baseball Missed Its Moment

Sports news on Thursday:

NBA Board of Governors vote to approve league’s 22-team format, according to Adrian Wojnarowski. This means the league will play to start around July 31 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex on the Disney campus near Orlando.

The NHL plans to return with 24 teams competing for the Stanley Cup playoffs — details still need to be worked out but the wheels appear to be in motion.

The Premier League plans to return to action on June 17. NASCAR returned already. The PGA Tour will return for the Colonial on June 11. MLS hopes to hold a tournament in Orlando soon. The NFL will have coaching staffs return to facilities on June 5 and fully expects the season to start on time. The WNBA is hoping to have a season in one place — perhaps Las Vegas.

And then there’s baseball.

It isn’t just that baseball has no plans to start yet. No. It’s that nobody has any idea what baseball is going to do. Nobody knows when they’re going to play, if they’re going to play, what a season would look like, etc. Nobody knows how many games would be played, where the games would be played, what a playoff format would be, if there would be a playoff at all and so on and so on.

I wrote yesterday about how badly baseball needs someone looking out for the future — and how daunting that future might look. Today I want to talk about something slightly different: How badly baseball has blown its moment.

Baseball’s one great advantage over the other American sports (perhaps its only advantage) is history: Baseball has been deeply embedded in the American consciousness for much longer than pro football or any sort of basketball even existed.

There is no figure in football or basketball or any other American sport as titanic or legendary as Babe Ruth.

No other sport is taught in America’s classrooms the way the story of Jackie Robinson is taught.

“I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Franklin Roosevelt wrote as America went to fight in the deadliest war ever fought.

In the years that I’ve been livin’
A lot of things have surely changed
Lots of things have come and gone
Some even came back again

But through all the many changes
Some things are for sure
And you know it’s a mighty fine feeling
Kind of makes me feel secure

‘Cause I love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet!
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet!
They go together in the good ol’ U.S.A.
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet!

— Chevy commercial song in 1975

How does that James Earl Jones’ speech go again?

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game -- it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

Sure, baseball’s mythology and history and romance can be nauseating, at times even a seamhead like me can find it over the top. And we all can point to the countless missteps, blunders and scandals that have haunted the game.

But I do believe, as my friend John Thorn has said, that baseball is at its best when it leads, when it pushes America forward. And, at times, it really has. Sure, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier came much too late — there never should have been a barrier in the first place — but, as Buck O’Neil used to say, Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers years before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, when Martin Luther King was still in college, long before Brown vs. Board of Education.

Sure, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was relatively short-lived and it was problematic in numerous ways, but it also came long before Billie Jean King fought for equal pay, long before the U.S. Women’s Soccer team filled America’s consciousness — it was a professional baseball league featuring women at a time when such a thing was revolutionary.

Sure, baseball’s labor wars of the 1970s were painful and messy and left numerous scars, but that doesn’t change the fact that baseball players fought and won rights for athletes that opened up the sports world in ways that still are felt today.

And baseball absolutely should have led throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. The moment was theirs — the baseball season was just a couple of weeks away when the pandemic’s impact first hit the nation. Opening Day — that moment, Tom Boswell famous wrote, when time begins — came and went without baseball. The month of April came and went, that month when baseball hopes fill the mind. May came and went without baseball.

For the first time since 1880, there was no baseball on Memorial Day.

And in the place of baseball we were given … what? Nothing. Silence. OK, We know that they couldn’t play baseball right away. But where were the bold ideas? Where were the innovative plans? Where was the storytelling? Why weren’t there town meetings to talk about how to bring the game back better than ever? Why weren’t there fun baseball documentaries to fill the space — in the same way they used to show “This Week in Baseball” during rain delays?

Why weren’t their cool attempts to do fun baseball things — you saw how Mike Schur and the cast put out a special “Parks and Recreation” and raised millions. How did baseball not do something like that? A social distance home run derby at 10 local high schools? A Strat-o-Matic battle between Terry Francona and Whitey Herzog, between Greg Maddux and Mike Trout, between Max Scherzer and Frank Thomas?

I could go on like this forever — baseball just let months pass by with nothing.

But more, much more, infinitely more, where were the plans to get baseball going again? How could this sport just flail around in a dispiriting spiral of hopelessness? This is a pandemic. This is a once in a century nightmare. Everybody had to know they were going to lose money, lots and lots of money — this after something like a 50-year winning streak. Everybody had to know the season wasn’t going to look anything like other seasons. Everybody had to know that it would take cooperation and imagination and dedication to figure out how to play baseball.

And everybody had to know that people were so hungry for baseball, for something that felt familiar, for the sound of the ball cracking off the bat, for the sight of a freshly mowed outfield, for the sight of Mookie Betts rounding second and trying for a triple.

How could they fail such an obvious test?

Oh, sure, they’ll probably figure out a way to get out and play ball eventually. But people are exhausted. There was a moment to lead, a moment for baseball to once again be at the center of American optimism and aspiration. And, they fought over money instead. They talked past each other instead. I’m not both-siding it — I blame the owners, the people who are supposed to be looking out for this game. But, as I have said before, most people don’t care whose fault it is. All they care about is that baseball can’t get its act together. Again.

It’s heartbreaking, really. There was a moment there, I believe, when baseball could have once again showed the way. I know there were people — I heard from many fo them — who said: “Hey, if they play baseball, maybe I’ll give it another try. I used to be a big baseball fan before (the strike/steroids/the games got so long). Maybe I’ll check it out.”

And that moment is gone. I don’t know anyone who feels that way anymore. Soon there will be soccer and there will be golf and basketball and football will be on the horizon and baseball? We die hards will be there when baseball finally comes around because we’re always there.

But, yes, the moment is gone. That’s the lesson of baseball, isn’t it? If you hesitate, the fastball is already by you.