We are doing it again.
We have pushed baseball between the ICU and life support. After all, bemoaning the state of the game might actually be our national pastime.
John Thorn, the estimable official baseball historian, can provide upon request the first known quote from a player lamenting the lack of passion of the modern-day player. That was from 1868. Ulysses S. Grant was president. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were a year away from becoming the first acknowledged professional team.
In the century-and-a-half since, there has been a lot of debating and debasing over who plays, for how much, in what style and by which rules. My brethren from an earlier time were craftier, regularly taking to lithograph or poetry to bemoan — among other items — the play, pay and decay (sorry, I was inspired to rhyme).
Nothing changes now in Joe Biden’s term. The fight for the soul of baseball is as ever ongoing. If this time is different, it is about the fight being waged on so many beachheads simultaneously with such seismic potential to alter the game.
In 2021, for example, the minor leagues will be a laboratory as much as a development factory. MLB is now wholly in charge of the feeder system and wants to experiment with ways to evoke greater action — i.e. fewer homers, walks and strikeouts and perhaps more steals, hit-and-runs and defensive exploits — to see what to export to The Show. Larger bases, fewer shifts and pickoff throws, a 15-second pitch clock, a computerized strike zone. All will be employed at one level or another with the overriding goal to quicken pace, shorten length of games and generate more balls in play.
This year will bring negotiations between MLB and the players association on a new collective bargaining agreement with the current one due to expire Dec. 1. The sides will have to bargain on which rules experiments become part of major league play. They also will be tackling how players are paid, which among other items is going to move into questions about when free-agent eligibility should begin, whether there should be a payroll floor and what can be done to prevent teams from tanking away seasons.
The dislike and distrust between the sides complicates negotiations. And so does the lack of cohesive thought within the two camps. It is hard to get unanimity from the union on how to play when half the members see the world as pitchers and half as position players. It is hard to get owners to view rules on play or pay in harmony when some markets are as big as Los Angeles and New York and some are as small as Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
We are at a moment in time when both management and the union agree there should be a universal DH this year, but there won’t be one because the sides hate each other so much. Instead, pitchers who did not hit last year when the DH was universal, and almost certainly won’t hit next year with a universal DH expected to be part of a new CBA, will be forced to hit this year when they already are more vulnerable than ever coming off shortened workloads in 2020.
It is just another reason that a labor stoppage in the near future is accepted as a foregone conclusion — cue more funeral dirges for the game.
When fighting for the soul of baseball, passions are high and positions firm, all of it intensified by the kind of bad history in which the sides could not even form a real bond to fight a common enemy — the COVID-19 pandemic. But, deep breath, has anyone done much thinking about why they are fighting? Money, of course. How to make more of it. How to get a bigger piece of the pie.
It can end there.
If you believe in such corny things as the soul of baseball (guilty), then we are talking about an institution that stretches back to those lithographs and poems of the 19th century. It has tradition and meaning to so many. And it is worth fighting for because — wait for it — these might be the good old days. The best players ever might be playing right now.
It is worth fighting for because Juan Soto might be Ted Williams, Mookie Betts might be Willie Mays and Jacob deGrom might be Tom Seaver.
It is worth fighting for because Mike Trout might be Mickey Mantle, Clayton Kershaw might be Sandy Koufax and, well into his career, the DJ in LeMahieu might stand for Derek Jeter.
It is worth fighting for because Shohei Ohtani looked great again this spring as he tried the Ruthian achievement of hitting and pitching at a high level.
It is worth fighting for because there has never been this many brilliant shortstops arrayed at one time. It is our Willie, Mickey and The Duke. Just is it Fernando, Francisco and Correa? Or Story, Seager and Turner? Or Xander, Javier and Dansby? Or …
It is worth fighting for because Miguel Cabrera is closing in on 500 homers and 3,000 hits and Albert Pujols is nearing the end of a storied career.
It is worth fighting for because the Padres are coming after the Dodgers and the Mets are coming after the Yankees and because who knows what the Rays and A’s have cooked up in a second COVID-altered season to turn less into more?
It is worth fighting for because Nolan Arenado, Matt Chapman and Manny Machado are going to do Graig Nettles, Brooks Robinson and Scott Rolen things at third.
It is worth fighting for because Wander Franco, Jarred Kelenic and Bobby Witt Jr. are next.
It is worth fighting for because there are runners in scoring position for Nelson Cruz or Freddie Freeman, two strikes on the hitter and the ball in the hand of Aroldis Chapman or Josh Hader and a drive to deep center and Jackie Bradley Jr. or Kevin Kiermaier are tracking.
It is worth fighting for because Gerrit Cole has a hitter set up for a fastball, Max Scherzer for a slider and Zack Greinke for whatever his imagination can conjure.
It is worth fighting for because it is a world game in which 21 countries and territories were represented on Opening Day rosters in 2020, and players from Cuba (Jose Abreu/Luis Robert), the Dominican Republic (Cristian Javier/Jose Ramirez), Japan (Yu Darvish/Kenta Maeda) and South Korea (Hyun Jin Ryu) were either award winners or top-three finalists last year.
Sure, there is much to figure out. How to get the ball in play more. How to return to a game that is less homogenized and allows for different styles to flourish beyond power pitching and power hitting. How to allow the best group of athletes ever to play to show off their wares. How to work at a quicker pace and a shorter length. How to encourage teams not to purposefully sink to the bottom for extended periods as a form of rebuilding. How to discourage clubs from manipulating service time for those who deserve to play in the majors.
But all in charge of that — namely owners, players, union officials, the commissioner — have to see a bigger picture than a bottom line. Especially since the bottom line will be better for all if the fight for the soul of baseball finds partnership — big market and small, pitchers and hitters and especially owners and the union — that fosters a more interesting, competitive style that appeals to broader audiences.
If that happens, it would be worth a few lithographs and poems.