In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Back in mid-March (which feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?!), Major League Baseball halted Spring Training for each of its teams, sent players home, and made the decision to delay the start of the 2020 season indefinitely. After a few months and countless labor disputes between team owners and the Players Union—and no real progress regarding the United States’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—it appears as if there’s going to be some semblance of a baseball season. Players (at least those who have not opted out of playing this 2020 season for any number of reasons) have reported to their respective cities, a 60-game schedule for each team was crafted and released, and against all odds (and CDC recommendations), it looks like there will be Brewers baseball starting July 24.
Kyle, I know that, like many of us, you miss baseball dearly. I can get into some things I miss and how I feel about a sport being played during a still-raging pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 Americans to this point. However, I want to give you the opportunity to weigh in first. How do you feel about this unorthodox Brewers season? As much as I’m sure you’re longing for the return of baseball, do you think it’s worth all the risks involved to give people a taste of a “normal” summer when I think we can both agree, things are not normal.
Kyle Lobner: I think, like a lot of folks around the game, I’m conflicted. I’m excited for an opportunity to watch baseball again, especially as the Brewers make a run at a third consecutive postseason for the first time in franchise history, but of course I’m worried about the health and safety of those involved. I was encouraged by a relatively low positive test rate among MLB players and coaches during last week’s intake, though, and I’m using that to cling to hope that all of this can work in Milwaukee, if not everywhere.
I think my biggest question, however, is what happens if or when it doesn’t work in some places. I don’t know that we know what will happen if one or more teams experience an outbreak. Will MLB expect a team to simply replace the players and continue play if, for example, one team has 10 positive tests at the same time? Will they be willing to suspend play temporarily or indefinitely to make adjustments? Can they allow individual teams to cancel or postpone games or drop out of this season entirely? I’m not excited to be thinking about these scenarios, but I do think I’d feel better knowing there’s a plan in place to pump the brakes on this if it ends up being unsafe.
Beyond that, I am grateful to the people involved making an effort to try this. Both the sport and the world are in uncharted territory right now and that’s scary for everyone involved, but there’s something to be said for an effort to get people to stay home and watch baseball instead of venturing out for less safe activities. So I’m thoroughly lukewarm on this. How about you?
Tyler: I appreciate your cautious optimism when it comes to this, as you said, “uncharted territory.” I really do. However, I have a hard time believing the motivations of owners and league officials have much of anything to do with giving people a reason to stay home to watch baseball. Yeah, that might be an unintended byproduct—and I truly hope it is a cause for people to stay the fuck home—but more than anything, it boils down to money. Without fans, owners are sure to take a financial bath this year no matter what, but television rights for a 60-game season will at least slow the bleeding for these billionaires. The league will lure people in with MLB Extra Innings—which is more expensive on a per-game basis than it was for last year’s 162-game season—new merchandise, and the chance to kind of see yourself in cardboard cutout form during games for the low price of $50.
While helping satisfy the bottom line, baseball’s hasty return will also offer a distant dash of normalcy to people in a world that’s been turned upside down. But at what cost? Many players and personnel will contract COVID-19. That’s just going to happen. It’s quite possible someone will die as a direct result of rushing baseball back before conditions are optimal. And even if players recover, they could incur career-ending lung damage that could have been avoided by calling the season off. With 30-man rosters, staff, broadcasters, and a three-man “Taxi Squad” traveling to other cities—even if they’re relatively close cities—as well as stationing 30 other “player pool” athletes for each team in a nearby city is absolutely unnecessary during the still-climbing pandemic that has killed more people in America than the populations of Appleton and Fond du Lac combined in just over four months.
Last week, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said “sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” while also acknowledging “we’re way worse off as a country than we were in March when we shut this thing down.” He’s absolutely right. Things have not improved. Baseball isn’t coming back because our divided and weary society deserves it by any measure. It’s coming back because we didn’t think it would take this long or be handled this poorly, because there’s money to be made, and because if we miss an entire season of a sport (that wasn’t even shelved during WWII) on account of selfishness, ignorance, and somehow managing to politicize a pandemic, then we can’t as easily hide from the harsh reality that this thing is real, it’s terrible, and so SO many lives have been lost and changed forever.
Yes, we’re allowed to find sources of joy in the midst of a long-overdue revolution stacked on top of a pandemic, but I’m not sure it should be in something that requires thousands of people to further risk their lives and well being (and the lives of their loved ones and strangers with whom they come into contact as well). As nice as it will be to hear Bob Uecker’s voice, see Christian Yelich hit, watch Lorenzo Cain rove the outfield, and watch what could be Ryan Braun’s final season in Milwaukee, it comes at a price. And no, I’m not talking about MLB Extra Innings’ $59.99 fee…we all know Extra Innings blacks out local games. Now that I’ve effectively brought the mood down, do you think there’s any saving grace to all of this? How do you think the 2020 season (if it’s even completed) will be seen by future generations? And if the Brewers manage to stay healthy enough to pull off an amazing 60-game campaign, will it even “count” when fans look at it years from now?
Kyle Lobner: There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll try to take on your points in order. I apologize if I misspoke in my previous statement and in any way implied that MLB owners care about anything beyond their profit margin, because there’s no evidence they do. It’s worth noting that the first (and to date only) conversation about canceling this season was about economics, not health. The positive elements of the season are at best byproducts of the financial motives that power the game, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And the Extra Innings/MLB.tv pricing structure you mentioned is a continuation of a longtime league practice, where through the season the product is “discounted” to a “new low price” that’s just a pro-rated portion of the remaining season, plus a little extra.
While I agree that an outbreak is possible (and as I noted above, MLB hasn’t made their plans in the event of an outbreak clear at this point), I don’t know that it’s as certain that “many players and personnel will contract COVID-19,” as you said. Certainly South Korea isn’t a perfect parallel to America’s situation at this point, but they’ve been able to resume play in the Korea Baseball Organization for more than two months now without major incident. One of the rare bright sides of the past few weeks has been conversations between teammates about the important role they play in keeping each other safe. If seeing Mike Trout do it convinces even a small handful of doubters to put on their goddamned masks, then there’s a public health silver lining in this dark cloud.
I certainly understand Doolittle’s sentiment in the quote you cited above, but it also feels a bit like a gym teacher making the entire class run laps because a few idiots misbehaved. And while in concept canceling sports as a public message that “things are NOT okay” feels like a needed wake-up call to people who aren’t taking a pandemic seriously, what are the odds that the folks who need that message will actually receive it that way? I know we’re both aware of the size of the population of folks who simply won’t listen to reason and have convinced themselves they’re being victimized by the efforts to protect their safety.
Finally, in light of the other issues we’ve addressed, the questions of the 2020 season’s “legitimacy” seem rather small and unimportant. With that said, there is some precedent for memorable sports moments to come from weird seasons. The Dodgers don’t have an asterisk on their banner from winning the 1981 World Series even though they only played 110 regular season games and wouldn’t even have reached the postseason if MLB hadn’t temporarily changed the playoff structure in response to that weird season. The Washington NFL franchise still won Super Bowl XVII despite a player strike cutting that regular season in half, and San Antonio is still treated as rightful champions of the 1998-99 NBA season despite the fact that the season was cut short that year, as well.
There are certainly risks being taken here, and I won’t pretend to be indifferent to them. It’s going to be a challenge to observe and to cover this baseball season without worrying about the consequences of coming back too soon. In the end, however, I think the positives of trying outweigh the negatives, as long as there’s an exit strategy in place if it proves infeasible.
Tyler: You raise some good points about the legitimacy of other shortened seasons, and if the Brewers 1. are able to make it through the full 60-game schedule and the postseason in one piece, and 2. manage to win the World Series in the weirdest season in Major League history, I’ll recognize it as valid. The same goes for the Bucks (who showed their dominance in a large sample size before COVID hit stateside) if they leave “The Bubble” in Orlando with a title in tow. While the authenticity of these outbreak-abbreviated seasons doesn’t deserve to be scrutinized, I have a hard time believing fans will want to look back at 2020 season—the year players risked contracting a deadly disease on a daily basis to compete in empty stadiums as the world burned around them—with any sort of fondness, regardless of their preferred team’s performance.
Like you, I hope there’s a plan in place to keep players and personnel safe. Like you, I’m (unlikely as it is) hoping this strange, tossed-together season inspires people to stay inside more and wear masks in public. Like you, I’ll probably watch some games because, frankly, it’s anything new to talk about and something to at least temporarily divert my gaze from minute-by-minute updates about a doomed nation that’s crumbling beyond the vacant bleachers of a big league ballpark. I’ll hope for the best, brace for the worst, at least somewhat keep tabs on the Brew Crew and, all the while, wholeheartedly disagree with Major League Baseball’s decision to play in 2020. This has the makings of a disaster. I pray I’m wrong.