I have to hand it to baseball. I always pegged voluntarily killing a season and permanently alienating fans as more of a hockey move.
There are a lot of people upset right now, as they should be. While every other sport is, even if just for the cameras, engaging with their players and working towards a plausible scenario where play can return, baseball is stuck at home, arguing over directions with empty luggage and clothes strewn about the room. “Distraction” may not be the best word, but in such a tumultuous time, there is value in comfort, and baseball could have provided that.
I’m just not one of those people right now.
My anger with how the Red Sox have treated a championship core — as nuisance employees asking for a deserved raise rather than as the bedrock of a winning and profitable club — led me to the decision, months ago, to sit out the 2020 season and spend my money and energy elsewhere. But the conduct of the owners here, and the constant circus surrounding whether this labor impasse will ever lead to a sham 50-game season, has me in a new place. I think I’m out for 2021, too. And perhaps beyond that. It’s a long way beyond 1993, you see.
I’ve referenced a weird love for the 1993 Red Sox in the past, but it’s not so strange in retrospect. I was 11 years old in 1993, and that passion for baseball came to a head. I was old enough at that point to understand how to calculate batting average and how it differed from on-base percentage. I could do the math and understand how ERA worked. I started to have real opinions on when to leave a pitcher in and when he was gassed. And I could look down at my baseball cards and compare up to the screen and back down to the floor, matching faces to the action. The business side of it — beyond trades — was mostly absent. There’s enough going on that it’s an excellent sport for an inquisitive kid.
The team I had to accompany this awakening was Butch Hobson’s crew, one that would finish in fifth place in the seven-team American League East, led by Mike Greenwell, Mo Vaughn and Scott Cooper. Winning games was fun, but winning at all costs and landing there at the end wasn’t as dire an impulse as it would become later. The years of curiosity built and reached a new peak that season — I can’t tell you much else about that summer, but I can pull out stupid details from that team, paired with my surroundings
All this leads nicely to 1994, the looming expiration of the collective bargaining agreement and the strike that stopped the sport cold in August, killed the World Series and provided a bracing shot of reality to this pre-teen. And it was a bummer — the idea of canceling a World Series seemed outside the realm of reality, nevermind that the sport would do it voluntarily. So I sat down and waited for winter sports to enter the picture. The 1994 NHL lockout followed on the heels of this, though, and it only took a month or so without hockey that I realized losing hockey meant much more than losing baseball.
It could have been the compound effect of a sports vacuum — baseball checked out early, and when hockey wasn’t there to cushion the blow, everything suddenly felt much more severe. It might have had something to do with the fact that, at that moment, the Bruins were contenders and the Red Sox (as far as I knew) were not. There was a sense of injustice that my 12-year-old self latched onto with hockey — the players were locked out, where in baseball they walked out. A better understanding of labor negotiating and leverage came much later.
But what’s most likely is that it was my first realization that I could like another sport as much as, or perhaps more, than baseball. The Celtics were still there and in the midst of a very weird season, complete with Dominique Wilkins and Pervis Elison. And that’s around when I started investing much more of my time in music. I could entertain myself just fine. There was life beyond this thing.
Not that I gave up on baseball then, though. I was back with the delayed opening day in 1995 and followed right through into the playoffs, and then every year without fail up until this past offseason, where one of the richest teams in baseball cried poor and sent their best homegrown player in decades to the West Coast for pennies on the dollar — and shipped an inconveniently expensive ace out the door with him.
The writing had been on the wall for a while. I hardly ever watch any baseball games that don’t involve Boston, only checking back in on the other teams for the World Series. But I’ll happily watch just about any NHL or NBA game that happens to be on — I was watching the Mavericks-Nuggets game in March of my own volition when word came down that the NBA was hitting the pause button on the season.
Like a final nail in a coffin I didn’t realize was being built, something slammed shut. Why, as an adult, was I paying money to go to the park throughout a season and dedicating rare leisure hours to a game I didn’t recognize anymore? Calculating WAR on the back of a notebook is an impossibility, and the ruthlessness to which the game is both governed and covered has been distasteful. Everything is a prognostication — rooting for a team or players isn’t the point, idiot, it’s to root for proper payroll management and asset control, moving pieces for futures and leveraging the probabilities in each at-bat, even if it renders the game a four-hour standstill, longer if the Sox are playing the Yankees, longer still if the game is on ESPN. Those fans and writers who wielded their devotion of advanced stats like a bludgeon weren’t exactly a welcoming bunch. The old timers railing against them weren’t of comfort, either.
But this is a long way to say that all those people who were still watching, and will still watch when baseball comes back, truly enjoy the game in a way that I don’t anymore. That, and trading Mookie Betts was the last straw I didn’t see coming. And now, with the country in a crisis that will be dissected for decades, compounded with a virus that so many are trying to defeat by ignoring, baseball has stepped up and displayed the worst version of itself at the worst possible time.
If the best-case scenario through all this is a half-summer filled with launch angles, 13-man bullpens, “years of control,” competitive balance tax prognostications, win probability, pitch counts, 40,000 strikeouts, wRC+, three true outcomes, “openers,” performance enhancing drugs and hours of endless instant replays to remove a runner from second base for having his foot lift into the air for 0.5 seconds, all in support of an industry that still intends to gut the minor leagues for the sake of not having to play some 19-year-old with a dream $1,000 a month, then why even bother?
This is certainly not to absolve the other major leagues of their own behavior, or to shake my fist at the clouds and a changing game. It’s just that I don’t enjoy this anymore. That it’s not even here right now and I don’t miss it is just another bit of evidence that times change and people change. Baseball has gone one way and I’ve gone another. Maybe those paths will intersect again in the future, but for now, I’m good. It was fun until it wasn’t. I’ll always have 1993.