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MLB

I’m Stuck With Baseball

Miguel Cabrera jokes with Shohei Ohtani
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A cool thing I saw during the 2021 MLB season was when Miguel Cabrera hit his first home run of the year—and 488th of his career—in the dang snow, without even realizing the ball cleared the fence. He slid into second believing it was a double, then regained his home run trot upon learning crucial new information about the location of the baseball. It was a cute glimpse of awkwardness placed within the body of a legendary slugger.

Another cool thing I saw—in person!—was Shohei Ohtani’s 40th home run, which he hit in Detroit while pulling double duty on the mound in a park where everyone was crossing their fingers for Cabrera to get 500. The blast was so breathtaking—and Ohtani himself so undeniably awesome—that even the opposing fans couldn’t help but cheer the Angels’ 3-1 lead.

I could, and will, go on. I saw Jacob deGrom threaten to strike out 20 on multiple occasions. I saw Akil Baddoo become an early-season hero in a city starving for heroics. I saw Albert Pujols take meaningful postseason at-bats at age 41. I saw Fernando Tatis Jr. defy the laws of physics with a double jump on a liner to short. I saw Trea Turner make the smoothest slide in the world. I saw Daniel Vogelbach try to stretch a single into a double. I saw the pulse-pounding swing-off between Ohtani and Juan Soto in the derby. I saw Vlad Jr. boom a moonshot to left in the all-star game. I saw Robbie Grossman become my new favorite player. I saw a game in which the Royals came back in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th innings before losing in the 11th. I saw the Mets rise from the ashes of one of the most embarrassing first innings in history. I saw Javy Baez pull off an all-time bit of baserunning trickery. I saw Max Scherzer incinerate the Giants at the end of a classic NLDS. I only saw the tiniest fraction of what there was to see.

This winter, my baseball thoughts were occupied by significantly less exciting concepts—ideas that frankly I would prefer to never have to consider. Competitive Balance Tax. Pre-arbitration bonus pool money. These are not cool things. But they are apparently necessary for us to have baseball. And they have overshadowed the memories and promises of a game I love, from the time the owners decided to lock out the players, through the weeks they spent refusing to negotiate, and finally until 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday, when the owner-imposed deadline for canceling regular season games passed without a new CBA. Only then, when Tom Ley typed in our Slack, “I just thought about how many Shohei Ohtani starts are gonna be missed this year,” did the loss feel less abstract.

I wrote an essay about the Tigers for this year’s edition of Baseball Prospectus, and in retrospect it might look a little bit pathetic. It was about suffering through some miserable years as a fan of a baseball team that had no interest in winning, and about my elation at seeing glimmers of hope last year, and legit free-agent signings before the lockout. I argued that baseball franchises have a civic duty to provide respectable entertainment for their community, and that when they dip below mediocrity into cynicism, the result is something worse than can be quantified in either on-field or financial terms:

In baseball, teams typically have the summers to themselves, and they play a hell of a lot of games. While none of these contests has much meaning in and of itself, together they can create a collage of memories for the local fan that helps her place herself in the larger context of the year. And less loftily, they’re just always there for you, nearly every day from April into October. You go into a restaurant, and there they are in the corner of your eye above the bar. You take a drive up north, and Dan Dickerson and Jim Price accompany you on the radio. You have family coming into town, and the easiest thing to do is take them to a ballgame. A solid, reliable baseball team fills up all the little awkward gaps of our existence—the pauses in a meal, the friction of small talk, the otherwise lost nights spent doing nothing but laying on a couch—and best of all, it can do the same, equally, for everybody around you. But when that team suddenly fails to provide even a marginally competitive on-field product, every summer feels just a little bit emptier, because hope and belief are the necessary ingredients that make this relationship function.

These canceled games represent the owners of all 30 teams failing to provide even a marginally competitive on-field product. It denies all of this sport’s underpaid young stars the ability to pocket a salary that more closely reflects the value they create. But those are just the tangible things. The lockout denies fans, at the absolute minimum, a chance to celebrate a real, full-capacity, on-time Opening Day from coast to coast for the first time in three years. And it denies the players a week and counting of opportunities to create those moments that we’ll remember, which are actually the only goddamn reason we care about baseball in the first place.

It’s possible that MLB games are back in time for, say, Flag Day. (That’s June 14, as you well know—make your dinner reservations now!) If that happens, maybe the costs of the lockout get buried by the thrills and controversies that will emerge from the end of the NBA and NHL seasons, and the restart of the NFL’s calendar. But even if we get just a slightly shortened season, I’m not about to forget this explicit illustration of how the sport is controlled by a clique of obscenely rich, nihilistic bastards whose all-but-explicit master plan is to wring every ounce of profit they can out of baseball by degrading it, then cash out or die before suffering any kind of consequences. You think Peter Angelos gives a shit about how healthy the sport is going to be in 2029?

It’s hard to even know what to do, as an angry fan, when even season-ticket packages get eaten for breakfast by the kinds of billions the owners are guaranteed for a decade by their TV contracts. I could stop watching, stop buying tickets, stop wearing officially licensed apparel, but none of that meaningfully affects the owners’ lives anymore, and each tactic boils down to a futile attempt to make the shameless feel shame. I am but a customer, and the product, whenever it’s back on shelves, is still one I find appealing, through no part of the owners.

So I’ll be back watching baseball, whenever it returns. I need the cracking sound of dingers, the gorgeous green and brown of the fields, and the company in my headphones when I take the J train home on a sultry August night. I need it enough that I can bear the helpless frustration of being taken for granted, of knowing I’ve been played. But I also know that I enjoy baseball more than any of the owners can enjoy anything.

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