Dodger Stadium, November 2016 (Jon Weisman)

The United States is fighting for its life and soul. How badly do we need to see a curveball?

I don’t think I need to explain how much I love baseball and the Dodgers here, any more than I need to spell out the frustration millions of fans feel over the disagreement between players and owners on terms for a truncated 2020 MLB season. 

As the calendar presses into summer, time is running short on the possibility of that season taking place at all. If it doesn’t happen, it would be a shame for everyone in the sport, particularly those in its working class whose livelihoods depend on it.

And that’s all. 

The idea that more than any other business, baseball uniquely owes it to America return to return this year — that it is duty-bound to play ball, that it is committing some sort of moral crime if it doesn’t — is preposterous.  

For those of us who love the sport, baseball could be called essential. But in no real-world terms is it so. 

The year 2020 has reminded us what is truly indispensable. Health. Human rights. Our desire to see Clayton Kershaw burnish his Hall of Fame credentials or finally get his World Series title is truly secondary. And that’s with the very dubious assumption that once begun, a 2020 MLB season will avoid second-wave pandemic pitfalls and reach its conclusion without a hitch.  

I don’t understand how anyone can look at the world today and say that it’s critical for baseball to divert our attention from the crises that fundamentally mean life and death. 

* * * 

Then again, maybe your argument isn’t so much that baseball is essential, but that the players and owners are being selfish in depriving fans of the sport — and that selfishness in itself is a moral sin. 

In a year with so little to celebrate and with so many stuck inside their houses, shouldn’t baseball be doing everything it can to give back?

Again, it would be nice if that happened, but let’s take the false morality out of it. 

First, let’s talk about selfishness. Which of the following is more selfish?

I’ve devoted my life to baseball, but I don’t want to play for less than my market value while exponentially increasing my exposure to the coronavirus and jeopardizing not only my career but my family’s health.*

I’m a baseball fan, and I expect players to play for less than their market value while exponentially increasing their exposure to the coronavirus and jeopardizing not only their careers but their families’ health — purely for my pleasure. 

[*For those who might suggest that the widespread protests have wiped out coronavirus as an excuse, my response is that a) we can only wish coronavirus was dead, and b) human rights make more sense in a risk-reward scenario than baseball rights.]

I’ll admit, I find it a little harder to come up with a selfishness defense for the owners, who don’t have to put their lives on the line to make the sport run and who generally expect players to shoulder a greater burden of the sport’s losses after hard-lining all but the superstars during the sport’s recent boon times. 

In any case, even though everyone wants to divorce baseball’s financial stalemate from the pandemic, the fact remains that we’re in this position because of the pandemic. And unlike the NBA or NHL, MLB can’t simply cut several teams out of the picture and go straight to the playoffs. Baseball needs to do the whole megillah, including Spring Training and the complexities of getting pitchers’ arms into shape. Such an undertaking comes fraught with complications, whether we like them or not. 

If you can’t see an argument that major-league players might be better off skipping the season for reasons of health and safety — let alone if they would rather focus on the issues roiling the nation — you’re not looking hard enough. 

* * * 

As for the idea that baseball is driving itself off a cliff if it doesn’t play in 2020 … guess what? The whole country is already off that cliff. The United States has taken the leap like Butch and Sundance, and Sundance can’t even swim. To borrow from another movie, the problems of not playing baseball don’t amount to a hill of beans. 

Spare me the idea that fans won’t come back to the sport if it takes 2020 off. Spare me the idea that the very fans who are so desperate for baseball to be played amid protests and a pandemic will turn their back en masse once it does return. Did 1994 never happen? Did 1981? 

Yes, some fans will take a hike forever. But if you love the sport, if you want to stick around, why do you care if other fans disappear? Baseball long ago stopped being the nation’s most popular sport, but many people remain caught up in the idea that the sport’s mass appeal matters. It does — if you’re an owner or employee. If you’re a fan, it’s of little moment. If you’re a fan, what you want is to see the sport’s intrinsic pleasures on display, no matter how many other people are watching. 

I’m not blind to the consequences if baseball’s fan base shrinks, but none of those consequences put the sport on life support beyond the concerns in place before the pandemic began (as in the perilous future of the minor leagues).  Nor is it impossible for the consequences to force the powers that be into more responsiveness to fans’ needs and desires, such as one holy grail: increased accessibility to streaming in local markets.

This debate reflects the bitterness people feel over the labor tensions dividing the sport, and a fear that they’ll never be resolved. It’s not that whenever those tensions are resolved, baseball won’t be worth watching.  

Baseball might have missed an opportunity to reclaim a glorious place in the spotlight. Baseball might have reminded us that it often can’t seem to get out of its own way. But like it or not, baseball is also part of American society, in all its whims and glories and strengths and evils. Baseball is a sport run and played by humans, and humans are flawed. 

The United States hit TILT in 2020, and we’re still figuring out how to get the lights back on. We can hope for the best, but there are no guarantees. There is no way baseball can be exempt from this uncertainty and really no reason it should be.  

Any summer without baseball is a dark one, but let’s keep it in perspective. Let’s focus on what really matters. Seriously. Let’s find pleasure where we can, even if it’s not in the usual places, even if it’s only in helping our fellow humans. Let’s hope we can all work together to give the most vulnerable people support and dignity. And let’s hope that if not in 2020, that by 2021, we are all in much better shape to pull up a chair for a ballgame.