Everything you need to know about Major League Baseball and its problems comes down to two speeches in a beloved movie. The first speech is the one that people remember most from Field of Dreams. In the scene, Ray Kinsella is unsure whether he ought to sell his farm or keep it and the magical baseball diamond he has built there. But the writer Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, assures him, “People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom.” Those reasons include, presumably, the magisterial timbre of Jones’ voice as he continues …
“They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have, and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes, and they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. … Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
That’s the best-known speech in the film, but the best speech in the film comes earlier. Kinsella offers to grant one wish to Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played just one inning of one game in the majors. Burt Lancaster’s Graham sits down and weighs the proposition, and his eyes twinkle.
“I never got to bat in the major leagues,” he says. “I would have liked to have had that chance, just once. To stare down a big-league pitcher. To stare him down and, just as he goes into his windup, wink — make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. The chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it, to feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball, to run the bases, stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish.”
Watching because I have to
It’s natural to assume that the phrase “Major League Baseball and its problems” is a reference to the rancorous standoff between, on one side, commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB’s owners and, on the other, the players union. And yes, their inability to settle on a proper length of a pandemic-shortened season and a proper rate of player compensation does threaten to send the sport into either a death spiral or something close to it. It’s not just that a failure to reach an agreement would wipe away any chance of even a 50- or 60-game season this year. It’s that — because MLB’s collective bargaining agreement expires next year — a failure to reach an agreement increases the chances that there will be no baseball until 2022 at the earliest.
But even if the owners and players were to reach an agreement tomorrow, one that pleased everyone on both sides and kept them pleased for a decade or more, and even if the games were to begin within a month or so, baseball’s most significant issue would, at least for me, remain entrenched and unsolved.
The sport itself has grown homogenous and dull. When I watch baseball nowadays, it’s because I have to, not because I want to.
I might be a former fan on an island here, but I don’t think I am. Last year, Major League Baseball’s total attendance and per-game attendance were at their lowest levels since 2003. TV ratings for the 2019 World Series — a seven-game epic between the sport’s great villain, the Houston Astros, and a relative upstart, the Washington Nationals — were the lowest of any World Series.
Go back to that James Earl Jones monologue. What was intended and interpreted as a paean to nostalgia and history and an inextricable link between baseball and America now reads as arrogance and entitlement from the leaders and shepherds of a pastime that isn’t as fun or as interesting as it used to be.
People will come because it’s baseball.
But an average nine-inning game took 3 hours, 5 minutes last year, longer than it ever has. And the games move at a drowsy turtle’s pace.
Doesn’t matter. People will come because it’s baseball.
But there are too many strikeouts, too many walks, too many hitters who hit the same way, with their hands at the knobs of their bats, swinging to get the ball airborne. Too many pitching changes, too many pitches that don’t result in action, too many pitchers who pitch the same way, so many 90-plus-mph fastballs, so much more force and velocity, so much less artistry.
Doesn’t matter. There are lots of runs and lots of home runs and lots of new statistics for longtime fans to learn. People will come because it’s baseball.
You want to dip me in magic waters? The game puts me to sleep. I hope I don’t drown.
A lack of vibrancy
What would reignite my love of the sport? What would bring me back? Genuine diversity. Genuine variety. Baseball used to have it. The ideas to improve the game that have been discussed of late are half-measures. You can add the designated hitter to the National League. You can beg Mike Trout to make himself more outgoing and marketable. You can have every slugger preen and prance after he slams one into the upper deck, and you can call Goose Gossage a dinosaur when he complains about it. Those are all ancillary issues. That’s all surface stuff.
What’s missing is the clash of philosophies and approaches, the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that once made baseball a blast. Junkballers. Knuckleballers. Submariners. Weird batting stances. Weirder windups. Rosters constructed to maximize the contours of home ballparks: the Cardinals with speed, the Giants with pitching, the Yankees with left-handed hitters who loft fly balls toward a short porch in right. Batters who choke up. Bad-ball hitters. Pitchers who complete games. Nicknames. The Candy Man. The Human Rain Delay. Oil Can. Spaceman. El Presidente. Pudge. Pops. Kong. Dutch.
Go back to that Burt Lancaster monologue. It captures the beauty and allure of the sport as it once was and really isn’t anymore. Wink at the pitcher? Sorry, Moonlight. The kid on the mound is throwing a particular pitch to a particular spot in a particular count based on reams of data and spreadsheets and algorithms. He’s not going to notice your wink because he’s not looking at your eyes, because he’s not paying attention to you, because he doesn’t believe he has to.
Squinting at a blue sky? Not in October, though you might blink against the stadium lights once that 8:08 p.m. first pitch finally rolls around. Run the bases? There were fewer stolen bases per game last season than in any season since 1971. Wrap your arms around the third-base bag after hitting a triple? No season in baseball history featured fewer triples per game than 2019 did.
The sport has changed, maybe forever. Its sense of daring, of true individuality, has been dying for a while. In the name of efficiency, in the name of the incremental advantage, the creativity and vibrancy that once characterized the game have been drained away.
If you want to accuse me of being a middle-aged man on a rant, go for it. You’re probably right. If you want to accuse me of generalizing, yep. You’re definitely right. But you know what I’m not? I’m not alone. That’s a lot of apathy and frustration. That’s a problem, maybe baseball’s biggest of all, and even if the owners and players lay down their swords and the games resume, I’m not sure how it gets fixed. People will come? It’s becoming harder to fathom why they would.