Are We Witnessing the Death of Professional Baseball?
It’s not been a good year for professional baseball. The current shutdown due to COVID-19 and an inability to agree on a restart date is actually just the cherry on a rapidly melting sundae for the sport that was once America’s Pastime. With players and owners seemingly miles apart on a mutually agreeable plan to start the 2020 season, the negatives that continue accruing for baseball may be the sad sign of their death knell after a century and a half.
At this point, the bickering between the players and owners has been prolonged and public enough that even if they came to an agreement tomorrow, fans already have a very bad taste in their mouth. With the American economy in shambles, the inability of millionaires and billionaires to get together on how to start play on their $10 billion industry is potentially ruinous. Their back and forth has been put on full display for a country thirsting for athletic action and is drawing few sympathizers. It doesn’t matter who is right and wrong in the matter. When it comes to the significant dollars at stake, nearly all empathy and reason go out the door for the average fan observing the pitched battle from the sidelines.
The cessation of pay for some stadium workers and minor league players has also created eye-catching headlines. It’s another situation where most fans don’t want to hear any explanations or business reasoning as to why this is happening. COVID-19 has brought the U.S and much of the world to its knees. If someone hasn’t been directly affected by it, they almost certainly know someone who has. Any perceived nickel and diming among those who are already wealthy find very little sympathy with people with substantially fewer resources and choices. Much like a polo club fancy pantsing itself outside of the accessibility of the average person, is baseball headed in a similar direction?
Related to the money and perhaps even more detrimental to its image is the dismantling of the minor leagues. Even before the pandemic struck, MLB was in the midst of proceeding with the contraction of over 40 minor league teams, which represents about a quarter of the overall number. It’s hard to find fans in favor of the move, as the minors have connected the sport across the country for over 100 years..
With any minor league season unlikely to happen in 2020, teams already began the blood bath, releasing hundreds and hundreds of young players this past week. Regardless of what happens next, it will never be the way it was before.
For many, minor league baseball represents better accessibility to the sport and hearkens back to a more traditional sense of the game. With teams scattered around the country, especially in smaller towns and cities, the ability for fans and their families to go to games for a fraction of the price of a big-league experience; have greater access to the players; and don’t have to contend with many of the unappealing aspects (attitudes, big money, tanking, etc.) of the majors.
The minors are also a frequent entry point to the game for young people. Over the years, too many children to count have fallen in love with baseball due to the bonds formed with organizational ball. By contrast, the big-league variety can be corporate and distant, which is a result of most consuming such games from nosebleed seats or viewing on television.
If the other issues weren’t already enough, Major League Baseball has also taken big hits over the past two decades over cheating scandals. Even with testing and punishment protocols, the game still suffers from PED use — the potential money from perceived benefits making it too tempting for some players to pass up. By and large, fans have never forgiven these transgressions and still cast a suspicious eye on players with big numbers, physiques, or both.
Compounding the stink of chemical cheating are the growing number of cases where teams have been caught using technology to gain an illegal advantage over opponents. Two of the most recent World Series winners, the Boston Red Sox (2018) and Houston Astros (2017), were both found to have used such methods and received punishments and lost their managers. The public outcry denouncing and deriding their actions have continued well after their judicial process ended.
The bickering over money, the cheating and the plan to kneecap minor league teams have all converged in a perfect storm during the pandemic. Pettiness, greed and dishonesty are not attributes an enormous enterprise like professional baseball can be associated with to survive and thrive. Once a heartbeat of American society, surveys now show baseball running a distant third in popularity behind football and basketball among sports fans. With people already showing signs of waning support, will the most recent issues help finish the sport off for good as we know it?
Professional baseball, like most other things right now, is in the midst of major uncertainty. However, instead of being able to hold an optimistic outlook, they continue to stare down the long barrel of a shotgun that has been regularly sending negative volleys their way. Everything has a breaking point, and baseball may be on the verge of finding theirs. With each passing blow, it appears that there could be darker days ahead for the game, making it a fair question to ask if we are witnessing their sad demise.