With the world in the midst of numerous crises, I can’t do this.
Baseball has consumed my springs and summers — falls, on occasion — for over half my life. It’s what gives me hope in Wisconsin’s brutal winters and leaves me crestfallen when October ends. It’s truly the soundtrack of summer, a ballgame on the radio while tending to a hot grill, the sounds of play-by-play while traveling the open road.
This darkest timeline 2020 season begins Thursday, a 60-game sprint with a postseason that may well include over half the field and might wrap sometime during your Advent calendar, that is to say, if it wraps at all. With numerous players opting out and others testing positive for COVID-19, in a nation whose leaders abdicated responsibility long ago and we only happened to get the memo this spring, one might say that discretion is the better part of valor; in 2020, there would have been no greater discretion than to cut one’s losses and see what 2021 might bring.
Further, Major League Baseball hasn’t exactly been a good steward of the greatest game, embroiled in the wake of the Astros and Red Sox sign stealing scandals and palace intrigue and innuendo surrounding the Yankees, while also folding an almost-certain December 2021 labor stoppage into this year’s pandemic panic, stalling and negotiating in bad faith with their players until a 60-game season was unavoidable by design. Rob Manfred’s leadership, if one is to use the term as loosely as possible, has inspired a deficit of confidence from the players and public alike.
Our trust was violated and then our intelligence was insulted. Our patience was tested, our place as paying spectators landed in the hierarchy somewhere between a mid-sixth-inning overflowing upper deck men’s room toilet and the piss puddle next to it.
Under these global circumstances, and with this kind of leadership from behind from a league flailing in vain to attain a fraction of the relevance it had with the American public a generation ago, it’s a bridge too far. I cannot feel good about participating in a disgraced and cynical season.
I’m sitting out the 2020 campaign.
Four and a half months ago, I was pumped for baseball, notably, a lifetime of Christian Yelich doing Yeli things in the 414. I saw the promise of a rejuvenated Justin Smoak and Lorenzo Cain finally healthy. I couldn’t wait to see Brandon Woodruff mow down batters. I spent more money than I care to admit on new Brewers swag, and fully believed that the Brewers were ready to take the league by surprise. Again. For the third year in a row.
Here we are, we should be pivoting to the closing quarter of the season and it’s only just beginning. In the meantime, the world just so happens to be on fire. We’re supposed to pretend things are normal because I can flip on WTMJ and hear Bob Uecker?
In a time when many people lack access to affordable, acceptable healthcare or COVID testing, is it morally or ethically acceptable to let ballplayers get tested every other day, or the NFL, which will incorporate daily testing? Watching the games, for me, is tacit endorsement of catering to well-paid, often-famous people while those on the margins fight — physically or fiscally — to survive. And while the survival rate for coronavirus is high, what kind of quality of life do those survivors have? What happens if a top-shelf major leaguer contracts it and it ravages his lungs? (By the way, the aforementioned is my nuclear apocalypse scenario with Brewer-for-life Yelich. If this happens, I’m done with sports entirely.)
Was any of this worth it to sacrifice generational talent just so Chads in trucker hats and Joshs in ironic tees can throw money away on DFS platforms? Let’s be very clear about this: MLB isn’t playing these games so that they can provide the public with a semblance of a normal summer, they’re doing it to placate media companies and advertisers and corporate sponsors decimated by the absence of live sports. This isn’t a charity, it’s damage control.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest and protests and violence that took place across the country, Major League Baseball was seemingly content to proceed with its first-year player draft without mentioning anything about the current social context. It took numerous team executives to force MLB to even muster a statement. Even then, Commissioner Rob Manfred looked like he was stood in front of the class and forced to read aloud the note he tried to pass to another student.
Baseball’s abandonment of America’s urban centers is nothing new. It’s a cost-prohibitive game to break into and even more expensive as one goes onward and upward. It takes a lot of people to play. You can have 3-on-3 basketball games or 7-on-7 football games; one can’t do that with a game that requires nine players in the field. Finding a suitable spot for a diamond in the city can be an impossible dream. Talented athletes often, understandably, choose to play basketball or football. It’s Jackie Robinson in reverse, to the point where baseball is widely considered a white man’s game. It’s tragedy and farce, and it negates the legacy of thousands of Negro Leagues players who innovated, challenged and sacrificed their legacy for our greater good.
Robinson and Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige: they didn’t just break a color barrier, they relegated Cap Anson to a historical footnote and paved the way for civil rights in America. To borrow from John Thorn, they made baseball our game.
To choose to not invoke that legacy of progress, the heritage of innovation and the tremendous impact those icons left now, in this time when we could sorely use ties that bind, is public relations and corporate malpractice. It alienates by omission.
Baseball has long been a forerunner for and prophet to American life. It has been our mirror at our very best and worst, sometimes both at once. It is reflective of the tension between the individual and community, the finite and infinite, science and religion, history versus myth. It is with us but not of us, it is ahead of us, transcendent of us. Already, but not yet. Sacred space in the midst of the vulgar. For MLB to parade itself as a paragon of the status quo not only feels demeaning, but self-defeating: self-debasing, even.
I don’t make the decision to sit out lightly. I love the game. I’ve been actively teaching it to my kids, I write about it, I research it, I’ve devoted my entire family room to it and it remains as true as ever that a bad day at the ballpark is better than a good day just about anywhere else. But with our society fractured, the public facing a health and economic crisis and, through it all, MLB’s persistent tone-deafness and arrogance, the choice has been made for me. I don’t like it, but at least I won’t feel like I’ve compromised.
I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Baseball in 2020 is neither right nor safe.
It feels less like a blessing, but rather damn near blasphemy.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.