Kurkjian: How with each passing day, Major League Baseball keeps missing the point

Jun 13, 2020

  • Tim KurkjianESPN Senior Writer


    • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
    • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
    • Has covered baseball since 1981

The Sunday Funday Bunch has met via Zoom every Sunday for the past two months. It is an eclectic mix, including former Orioles players, those who played for other teams or other sports, writers, PR people, fans, sons and daughters. Sometimes the meetings last an hour, sometimes three, depending how long the stories go. These people meet in part because they’re bored, angry or discouraged, but mostly they gather for one reason: They miss baseball.

Baseball is a small part of a far larger problem in this country and the world. Still, it is an important part, especially to those who live their lives through the game. It just didn’t feel right that there was no parade on the streets of Cincinnati on Opening Day, no celebration of Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, no pink bats on Mother’s Day, no Memorial Day festivities. There will not be games for Dad on Father’s Day. It would have been rejuvenating and inspiring to start the season on July 4, the date of our country’s independence, but thanks in part to the greed of the tone-deaf owners and players, that’s not happening either.

The two sides should be doing whatever it takes to get baseball back on the field as soon as possible for the short-term health of the game, and for the morale of the country. This is not a collective bargaining negotiation, but that’s what it has become. This should not be about settling scores, but that’s what it is. The MLPA got pounded in the last collective bargaining agreement, so much so that a former player described it this way: “We got a working agreement with Whole Foods, and they got a salary cap.” Union chief Tony Clark, a switch-hitting first baseman, not a labor lawyer, is feeling the heat to reverse course. Meanwhile, the owners, after their last victory in the CBA, believe they can get whatever they want now.

This should not be about establishing bargaining position for December 2021, when the current CBA expires, but that’s what both sides are doing instead of finding ways to play games by July 4.

“Every day,” one former player said, “this makes me mad, it makes me sad, it makes me laugh.”

This set of players doesn’t fully appreciate or understand the damage that can be done by a work stoppage because none of them has ever been through one. The 1994-95 strike was devastating; it canceled the 1994 World Series and set the game back so far that it took five years for it to recover. But in 2002, when another work stoppage was possible, pitcher Tom Glavine and other veterans who had been through 1994-95 stood in front of union leaders and said, in essence, this is not happening again, the game can’t take another hit.

Most of today’s owners aren’t in this for the love of the game, not like the family-run franchises in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Los Angeles 40, 50 years ago. These teams are merely commodities to the owners. The game isn’t personal to them. It is certainly not intimate. Some franchises are indeed fragile at the moment, so much so that some owners believe they’d lose less money if there were no season, rather than 75 games at 100% prorated salaries. Some owners say they want baseball in 2020 because they have to say it.

And both sides are talking way too much. This is not the time for millionaire players to talk about “getting my money” or billionaire owners to lament about limited cash flow when as recently as last month the unemployment numbers were soaring toward 40 million. Granted, trying to negotiate an agreement in the Twitter age is so much harder than in 1981, or 1994, but the leaking of stories and proposals is doing more harm than good. When Michael Weiner, who died in 2013, was the leader of the union, one CBA was finished and announced before anyone knew it had started.

So we wait on baseball as the country struggles, and as the NBA and NHL are moving ahead, and as the NFL is waiting to corral the sports fan when training camps open in August. A golden opportunity was missed by MLB. It had perhaps a month of the sporting landscape to itself but then spent way too much of that time bickering about money.

Meanwhile, we’ve missed baseball so much.

And so much of baseball has been missed, or would have been missed, the past three months. We missed Mike Trout‘s 300th home run and Albert Pujols‘ No. 661, passing the incomparable Willie Mays on the all-time list, and Pujols becoming the first player to ground into 400 double plays. We missed Edwin Encarnacion‘s 415th homer, passing Darrell Evans for the most by anyone whose last name starts with E. And Freddie Freeman‘s first grand slam; Braves teammates would have given him a beer shower for that.

We missed the 2,000th hit by Yadier Molina, one of those round numbers that can get you into the Hall of Fame. We missed the first big league hit by the White Sox’s Luis Robert and maybe the Rays’ Wander Franco. We missed Justin Verlander throwing the 3,000th inning of his career. And we missed Gerrit Cole throwing 100 for the first time as a Yankee.

We missed the ring ceremony for the world champion Nationals, and three months of booing the Astros. We missed Mookie Betts dashing through the outfield for the Dodgers, and the managerial debut of the Cubs’ David Ross. And the biggest thing we missed was, in his 1,000th plate appearance, the Reds’ Travis Jankowski hitting his first sacrifice fly. I do love sacrifice flies.

I have watched every throwback game. They are fun to relive, but the essence of sports, especially baseball, is the element of surprise, the mystery, the idea that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is not “Apollo 13,” which keeps you spellbound even though you know how it ends. I have not worn a watch in three months because my spring and summer days are normally built around what time games are on that day: a game at 1 p.m., 3 and 4:15, then 12 more from 7 p.m. until 1 a.m. I don’t have to watch every pitch of every game; the game on in the background is what’s so soothing to me.

For 20 years (1990-2010), I cut out every box score of every game and taped them in notebooks, never missing a day. Now there are no box scores to read. The sports section of my daily newspaper is in the back of the Style section, which, as a newspaper guy at heart, is jarring and discouraging. This was supposed to be the 30th year of my day-by-day book, where I chronicle, by hand, the scores of every game, the standings, winning and losing pitchers, three-homer games, four-strikeout games, etc. It’s a labor of love. My binder accompanies me wherever I go, and I have missed my daily entries this season.

I have friends who have invited me to join Strat-O-Matic and APBA leagues; no one played more of those games, usually alone, than I did during my childhood and pathetic teenage years. But sorry, I’m not into game simulations. The ultimate beauty of baseball is its human element, its degree of difficulty, its fear of failure, and none of that can be measured by a computer simulation, or even a set a cool cards and three dice in your hands.

There is going to be a baseball season, maybe only 48 games or 54 games, but that’s better than nothing. The game is so good, it has such history and tradition, that it will survive whatever happens, as it has survived wars, strikes, steroids and sign-stealing scandals. It won’t look and feel like baseball with no fans in the stands, no visiting broadcasters in the booth and no writers allowed in the clubhouse, but we’ll take it.

Baseball is not just a game, it’s a habit, as George Will says. It is every day, not every Sunday. Every night in the big leagues is a back-to-back. Games that are played on May 2, or any date, actually matter. Baseball provides daily rhythm to those who love it. I miss baseball. The country misses it. I love the Funday Bunch, but please, give me 15 games on Sunday.

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