Major League Baseball as viewed by a federal judge in 1970:
“Baseball’s status in the life of the nation is so pervasive that it would not strain credulity to say the Court can take judicial notice that baseball is everybody’s business … it would be unfortunate indeed if a fine sport and profession which brings surcease from daily travail and an escape from the ordinary … were to suffer in the least because of undue concentration by anyone or any group on commercial and profit considerations. The game is on higher ground; it behooves everyone to keep it there.”
Major League Baseball as viewed by owners and players in 2020:
“Keep your damn hands off my money."
A half-century later, we seem to have beaten the romance out of the old game. Or maybe just the pretense.
Back when Judge Irving Ben Cooper was ruling against Curt Flood in a challenge of baseball’s reserve clause — and when Cooper’s opinion was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago this Friday — we still viewed the game as some sort of poetic metaphor for American ideals.
Deep in our hearts, we now know better. Deep in our wallets, too.
The sport of baseball has been consumed by the business of Baseball. That’s not a revelation, but sometimes we can convince ourselves that it isn’t always true.
There are times in the middle of the summer when the game feels like the most loyal companion you’ve ever known. It’s always there, and it’s always comforting.
That’s what makes the past few weeks so disheartening. Major League Baseball had an opportunity to be there for a nation in need during a pandemic, and instead it stomped all over our silly illusions.
The game had a window of opportunity, and it had a plan for safety. All MLB officials and players needed to do was get on the same page, and baseball could pretend to be America’s Pastime once again.
Instead, weeks later, we’re still waiting watching them wrestling over billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, NASCAR is back on the tracks. The PGA Tour is back on courses. The NHL has a date for training camp and NFL teams have reopened their offices.
As for baseball, this season will forever be tainted.
Naturally, it was going to be a season of asterisks. The coronavirus made sure of that. But that didn’t mean it had to be viewed as something less than believable.
A season of 82 games would have been the shortest in major-league history, but it would have had a sense of achievement. A recognition of perseverance or maybe faith. And it had the added bonus of being almost exactly half of a normal season, making standards easily relatable.
But that’s not going to happen now. At least without a last-second rescue.
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The owners might have had some justification on their side when they asked for pro rata salaries to be reduced without fans in the bleachers, but they went about it the wrong way. They tried low-balling players, and they chose to negotiate through the media instead of in good faith.
Players didn’t distinguish themselves either. From the very beginning, they treated it like a labor war instead of a national crisis that has unemployment systems crashing and food banks scrambling.
Too much time was wasted and too many accusations were lobbed. And now, at best, it looks as if the season will be reduced to 54 games, which sounds more like your 13-year-old’s travel ball team. MLB went from proposing a half season to likely settling for one-third of a season.
An 82-game season would have been an accomplishment in a pandemic.
A 54-game season would be an unnecessary scar.
Yes, they could have fed us something special.
A baseball season that history could look back on as a reminder of a pandemic’s toll, and a country’s response. The season would be short, but the memories of honor and resilience would last forever.
Instead, they’re prepared to serve up this:
The Hamburger Helper of baseball seasons.
Quick, cheap and not terribly satisfying.