One of the side effects of a relationship that is as transactional as the one between Major League Baseball and its players is that it eventually becomes difficult for an outside observer to take either side seriously.
When the pursuit of money is the only thing that matters to either party, every interaction becomes a negotiation. Which makes it impossible to ascribe any amount of sincerity to the words and actions of either party. Maybe the historians will look back and realize that American-style capitalism was really late-stage nihilism. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The topical thing here is that, two days ago, news broke that Major League Baseball had put together a 67-page operations manual outlining the various protective and preventative measures that it would require players and teams to abide by in the event of a 2020 season.
Included in that plan are a host of measures that would warrant a raised brow from even the most officious of schoolmarms, let alone a constituency that once counted Jonathan Papelbon among its members. Masks in the dugout, socially distanced infielders, a prohibition on spitting -- the only unremarkable thing about the document is that MLB actually printed it on paper, given that paper is a surface that multiple people might touch.
As somebody who is ostensibly paid to have an honest, informed, and illuminating opinion on this sort of thing, I find it difficult to even know where to begin.
Taking the proposal at face value would mean spending the rest of this column constructing an argument that MLB’s proposal could be an example of the exact sort of over-bureaucratized social engineering that governments and commercial firms should strive to avoid in the coming months as we attempt to cobble together healthy, sustainable lives while also minimizing our risk of exposure to the virus in our midst.
It is a difficult enough argument to elucidate in 800 words, let alone a paragraph, but allow me to try. I believe in science. Science says that physical health is inextricably linked with psychological health, and that psychological health is inextricably linked with one’s sense of self-determination. I can’t think of a worse way to erode a society’s collective sense of self-determination than to create a world in which every action and interaction is conducted with an explicit reminder that it could result in death. If we are going to create such a world, we’d better be sure that we’ve done a thorough accounting of the costs and the benefits and that the ledger will end up in the black.
Sure, it might seem like a relatively harmless accommodation to ask that a ballplayer covers his mouth and nose in between spurts of anaerobic exercise in 90-degree heat, provided that you aren’t the ballplayer. But what, exactly, is its projected impact on the aggregate life expectancy of those he is ostensibly protecting? And if it isn’t significant, might maskless players be one small piece of normalcy that is worth retaining?
In a perfect world, we could assume that MLB has already asked and answered these questions; and that every guideline included in the reported manual is there because it has a significant chance to save lives. In reality, we live in a world where MLB and its players are currently engaged in a heated dispute about the amount of money those players should earn for their participation in any eventual season. And, in this world, one of the players’ most cogent arguments for maximum compensation is that they will be taking the field in spite of the considerable health risk of doing so.
It might sound cynical to raise the possibility that MLB is attempting to put its players in a position where they are forced to argue against provisions that are ostensibly in place to address their ostensible health concerns. It might sound just as cynical to suggest that Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell doesn’t really feel he will be risking his life to take the mound, as he stated that week, but that such rhetoric can only help the players’ case in the fight over pay.
One thing I know: If baseball does indeed conduct its 2020 season, it will likely be sharing television time with professional basketball, a sport where social distancing is impossible for anybody who isn’t guarding Ben Simmons behind the three-point line. One has to imagine that NBA commissioner Adam Silver understands how nonsensical it would be to require players to wear masks on the bench whenever they aren’t out on the court getting doused by opponents’ sweat and breath.
On a recent call with his league’s board of governors, Silver reportedly said that the NBA should not even attempt to reopen if it was not comfortable continuing to operate in spite of a positive COVID-19 test. It was a refreshing dose of pragmatism and an example of the sort of mentality to which all of us are eventually going to need to acclimate in order to make it through this next year with our sanity and bank accounts intact.
It is worth noting that the pandemic did not become real to a lot of people in this country until MLB and the NBA announced that they were closing up shop. While we shouldn’t overstate the power of sports, it’s not unreasonable to think that society will look to these leagues to guide us back out. With that in mind, it is imperative that Silver and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred carefully consider the role they will play in shaping what the new normal should look like. Perhaps baseball’s plan really is it. But I hope it can find a more sustainable way.