There was a brief, wondrous moment last week when it almost felt like baseball season was here again. Somebody had asked Joe Girardi to break down Vince Velasquez’s pitching performance, and the first-year manager had responded that Velasquez looked excellent early on before proceeding to lose his command. Here, finally, was a concrete sign that a return to normalcy was at hand.
Of course, the positive news rarely lasts when it comes to baseball in the time of COVID-19. And, sure enough, this little slice of familiarity proved fleeting. When the conversation pivoted from Velasquez’s scrimmage performance to the overall competition for the fifth starter spot, Girardi’s comments turned from pure, unadulterated ballspeak to the gorilla in all of our midst.
“I’m gonna stress, I think what we’re dealing with with the COVID-19, realistically I think you have to build up a number of guys,” said the manager, whose team will continue to practice for two more weeks before the start of the so-called regular season. “I don’t think you can say, ‘OK, these are my five starters’ and then build up guys who are only able to throw two innings.”
In other words, Girardi doesn’t think he can say something that practically every baseball manager has been saying since the five-man rotation became the sport’s dominant paradigm. And he’s right. He can’t. Last we checked, he couldn’t even say how many starts he expects to get out of his second-best and highest-paid pitcher.
If you’d tuned into Girardi’s daily press briefing hoping to hear something that might inspire you to start taking this MLB season seriously, there’s a good chance that what you actually found was a desire to build up your Netflix queue. Baseball might end up being played this season, but it is getting increasingly difficult to believe that this alleged championship season will be anything better than a sham. Out in Anaheim, the best player in the game is thinking about sitting out. In San Francisco, Buster Posey has already announced that he will not participate. While it would be cool to see the Eagles play their home games in a stadium that is empty except for Mike Trout, his absence in center field would make it awfully difficult for baseball to claim that whatever champion it ends up crowning is truly the best of the best.
Like Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler, who could end up missing a chunk of the stretch run to be with his wife for the birth of their child in September, all of these players are well within their contractual and ethical obligations to prioritize personal health and happiness over professional duty. MLB had three-plus months to come up with a plan that would incentivize its players to treat 2020 with same competitive gravity as any other campaign. Instead, its rush to negotiate a win-the-headline agreement with the MLBPA in March resulted in a framework laden with so many poison pills that it not only guaranteed the least optimal outcome but also the weeks of fruitless, goodwill-sapping negotiations it took to arrive there.
There is a theoretical world in which a 60-game season offers fans a compelling reason to buy in. An abbreviated schedule has plenty of advantages over the 162-game slog that essentially reduces April and May to a glorified warm-up lap. Anybody who watched the final three innings of the Phillies’ World Series clincher over the Rays in 2008 understands the inverse relationship between the magnitude of experience and time. Part of what makes the NFL’s formula so successful is that it condenses five months of competition into 16 games. While baseball’s daily structure would never afford it the narrative benefits that football teams realize by playing once per week, it nevertheless could have capitalized on the increased dramatic tension of a world in which each game contributes 1/60th to a team’s fate instead of 1/162nd.
In the actual world that baseball has chosen for itself, the heightened importance of each of Wheeler’s 12 projected starts is now mitigated by the suspicion that they might not mean anything. Last week, Girardi sounded optimistic that the length of any absence would be closer to the usual three-day paternity leave that players typically take. But even if that proves to be the case in September, what matters most right now for baseball is the perceived legitimacy of its season. From the pandemic to the George Floyd protests to the daily political circus, the last four months have required an unprecedented divestment of emotional energy from the same Americans whom baseball is counting on to invest emotional energy in its sport. If viewers’ supply of energy is as limited as I suspect it to be, baseball was always going to face a herculean task in siphoning off some portion of it while also contending with the NBA, NFL training camp, and the 2020 presidential campaign. Now, with 11 days to go, managers still aren’t sure how many of their players will be participating. Players still aren’t sure that they’ll get their test results in time to participate in a given day’s workout. So how can a fan be sure that the upcoming season will be worth treating seriously?
“I think the competition will be there,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said last week. “I know that we’ve run into some [testing issues] that aren’t ideal and guys have had to sit out longer than they should or not be able to show up to work that day, but I truly believe that MLB will get that ironed out and hopefully by the time the season starts we’ll have a strict protocol where we’re getting our tests back on time and guys won’t have to sit out if they don’t absolutely have to.”