Baseball, which begins again tomorrow despite our most fervent endeavors to forget that fact, is in decline because the thing it sells more than anything else is the ennoblement of suffering and the admiration of patience—two things at which 21st century humanoids are particularly deficient.
Patience may not be a virtue any longer but it is a value; if you had more of it, you’d have handled quarantine a hell of a lot better, and your dog would not be taking CBD pills to get rid of that irksome facial twitch. As far as elevating suffering, that is intertwined with patience, and because baseball is never not in your face, you sort of have to deal with it.
Yes, the games are too long, but that’s pace, not time. Yes, the games are run by hyper-rapacious dullards who hired the 2005 graduating class at MIT so all the teams could be built the same way and the games could be weaned off easy-to-see athleticism and replaced by fast-twice muscle measurement that can’t be seen without wiring up the patients. And yes, the truest currency of baseball has always been complaining about baseball, an ouroboros of despair that has created a sport where the rules change every 15 minutes and are altered by thugs and morons who complain about baseball more than they watch it. They’re like hedge fund jackals who buy newspaper chains and six months later ask their advisors, “Now what do I do with this? I don’t want to own a newspaper. I want to own a golf course and three sweatshops.”
When did all this change? Happily for you, I have the exact date: 27 October 2004, the day the Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-0, and ended an 86-year penitent flogfest among Sawx fans that became “Look how long our parents suffered, and now we got paid off after burying all of them, and you can get paid off, too.” Let’s put it this way: If your day requires that you go to a parade and then take your hopelessly drunken ass to Great Uncle Brendan’s gravesite to exorcise your fan demons, it’s not an endeavor that’s going to end well for anyone.
But that would have been endurable if not for the Chicago White Sox, who rid themselves of their 1919 demons and beat the non-swindling Houston Astros the next year, killing their own 88-year trophyless stretch. Then the Philadelphia Phillies broke a 28-year streak in 2008, then the San Francisco Giants ended a 56-year stretch in 2010, then the Kansas City Royals a 30-year run in 2015, then the Chicago Cubs ended their torturous (mostly for non-Cub fans) 108-year stretch in 2016, then the Washington Nationals avenged the crime done to the Montreal Expos (50 years of mostly getting screwed and moved) in 2019 and thus internationalized the idea of cross-border suffering one generation removed. Most recently the Los Angeles Dodgers killed a 32-year run with Justin Turner celebrating like it was February and you could spread all the germs you wanted without being declared the updated Typhoid Mary.
Now this still leaves teams that have gone a long time without a payoff, but in a sport that remains dominated by a few teams, the idea that a championship is equally accessible to all, even when not close to true, makes fetishizing endurance a lot less, well, fun. All that joyful solipsistic suffering is now passé, even though the very nature of the sport is about 70 percent failure. Baseball’s math-class-in-hell fetish won’t destroy it—it’s that our view of waiting has changed. In a world where cellphones are our new best friends, waiting around is an understandably alien concept, and suffering isn’t viewed as dignified; it’s just suffering. (And if you think the game is only for grandparents and the terminally sclerotic, then go be young and active and run a marathon and don’t tell us how your run went. We’re actually not interested in your suffering either.)
Take the Defector Slack room, a desperate little grammar school parents’ meeting in which the only two topics are who’s baking the cupcakes for the field trip and getting others to mind their kids. Today, way too much time was eaten by discussing John Means of the Baltimore Orioles, and then the Orioles in general, and then it finally ended at Adley Rutschman. Means is the staff ace who maybe found five more mph on his fastball (oooh, sexy), the Orioles in general haven’t won in nearly 40 years, only made the playoffs five times since then, and are now essentially their own parents, the St. Louis Browns, and Rutschman is the star of the future who you don’t get to see yet because starting his major league service time clock is considered akin to eating puppies. See? Waiting and more waiting, and waiting sucks. Frankly, we as a staff aren’t getting out as much as we should. We need more Vitamin D.
Oh, and nobody even mentioned Anthony Santander.
But being a trend too late is true of nearly every team, who attempt to celebrate the years in the wilderness through nostalgic Days At The Park, anniversary sleeve patches, and throwback uniforms that cost way too much and mostly have those vibrant colors dark blue and faded red. So your favorite team either needs to figure out how to recodify the bad old years in newer and more meaningful ways, or abandon them altogether and get down with the next generation by weaponizing bat flips. In the meantime, here’s what you’ve got, in alphabetical rather than useful order, with your localized suffering and how to deal with it like a semi-adult:
ARIZONA: Ruined a feel-good Yankee team’s September 11 narrative merger by winning the 2001 World Series. This is their 20th year of celebrating that one thing, and in Arizona, a retrospective “We Screwed The Yankees” campaign could absolutely work.
ATLANTA: They cheated a bit a few years ago (very Trumpian) but now have some of the most fun players in the game (not Trumpian at all). Selling the joy of baseball in football country by a team 26 years removed from victory is an intriguing but likely futile notion.
BALTIMORE: John Means.
BOSTON/CHICAGO CUBS: They had their time and made it annoying for the rest of us. Go another 80 years without winning and then get back to us.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: Gained Tony La Russa, but lost Eloy Jimenez. You may decide among yourselves where this all fits in your broken psyches. Also some ticket broker did one of those brightly colored heat maps of what geographic areas like what team best, and the White Sox didn’t even appear. As suffering goes, nothingness is a hell of a bar to clear.
CINCINNATI: Thirty-one years since Jose Rijo, 45 since the Big Red Machine. That’s a long time to watch the Bengals without distraction. On the other hand, a good ballpark to drink in when the humidity stays below 1700 percent.
CLEVELAND: Chief Wahoo is harder to find, but so is Francisco Lindor.
COLORADO: The good news is you can localize your suffering/hatred around Dick Monfort and Jeff Bridich without much effort. The bad news is that it’s fruitless. They’re doomed.
Swept twice in the two World Series they’ve reached since 1984. [CORRECTION: The Tigers “only” lost the 2006 WS four games to one.] On the other hand, the Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons are in your town so you can fake bragging rights even if you don’t actually possess any.
HOUSTON: You didn’t care that they cheated then, or now. To you, whatever ill befalls them is Rob Manfred’s fault, which is always a satisfying fallback position. Just saying the name is adrenalized rage.
[UPDATE: An earlier version of this article forgot about the existence of the Royals. This, the up-to-date version of the article, does too.]
LOS ANGELES ANGELS: Arguments about whether Mike Trout is more potentially fun than Shohei Ohtani … Oh, who’s kidding who? The cool kids are in on Anthony Rendon, but there are only seven cool baseball fans in all of Orange County.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Reinforced the value of money-burning as proof of future entertainment. Plus lots of suffering between 1989 and now, and maybe we don’t have to watch Kirk Gibson drag himself around the bases like a wounded soldier any more … Oh, who’s kidding who? We’re seeing that until your grandkids are dead.
MIAMI: The polar opposite of the Dodgers in every way. The highlight of last year was taking time off with an outbreak of infectious disease, until they backdoored the postseason ahead of teams even less worthy. No lines anywhere at the ballpark during the daily rain delay, so service is always tip-top. But get asked to name five Marlins and watch the fun evaporate in a diorama of blank faces.
MILWAUKEE: Closing in on 40 years without a World Series appearance, but the dog foot logo is back. Call it a scoreless draw.
MINNESOTA: Thirty years since Kirby Puckett, sure, but if you could choose between Byron Buxton, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kirk Cousins, you’d rather have Kirill Kaprizov anyway.
NEW YORK METS: No more Wilponia. For the rest of it, ask Comrade Roth. He’s got Mets Fever the way the Russian royal family had hemophilia.
NEW YORK YANKEES: Baseball without pitching—now that’s a nice touch. The first team to score and allow 1,000 runs in a season; if that doesn’t work for you, baseball simply isn’t your deal.
OAKLAND: Still the game’s best-kept secret, trying to take its aging fan base and lowering it by about 50 years without the old folks noticing. Oh, and they take Bitcoin from self-indulgent wankers for stadium suites, seeking out one more thing that nerds think is fun but actually isn’t.
PHILADELPHIA: Spent lots of money on Bryce Harper and not much since. Gotta pick a lane there, kids. Spending or not?
PITTSBURGH: Ke’Bryan Hayes could be fun, but in truth, the Pirates have done the “We’re cheap as hell but at least you can see the river” scam to death.
ST. LOUIS: Saved $50M AND got Nolan Arenado? The suffering’s for the rest of us, maybe.
SAN DIEGO: The Team Of Young America. This is the cool you crave, at least until they go 83-79.
SAN FRANCISCO: Spring training high point? Mike Yastrzemski didn’t break his hand. Other than that, Kevin Gausman is your ace. Yes, that is the video of “Groove Is In The Heart” playing in your brain.
SEATTLE: When do the Kraken start?
TAMPA BAY: “Blake Snell” is the new standard for joy curdling. I mean, you can try to sell Randy Arozarena if you want, but this team is Blake Snell until further notice. Which could be years.
TEXAS: The worst first year for a new ballpark ever, and nobody feels sorry for them at all. In any way. At any point. For any reason. Made two World Series in a decade and you still think they’ve spent their entire history below .500.
TORONTO/DUNEDIN/???: Playing in Florida and then maybe Buffalo again, which makes Canadian medical experts nervous because the vaccine for SABRE-19 is still in the testing phase and is not available in growlers.
WASHINGTON: We have someone on staff who cares deeply about the Nationals. They are justifiably single. Also, Juan Soto is going to be walked about 275 times, a level of suffering nobody can possibly comprehend.
In summation, baseball is indeed back. Play ball. Go on, we dare you.