Baseball, more than any other sport, has a bottomless stash of anecdotal lore — stories that may or may not have happened, but which exist because if they didn’t, they should have.
After White Sox outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson was implicated in the 1919 plan to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, he was summoned to a grand jury hearing on the alleged fix.
It was written that when he left the hearing, a young boy approached him and pleaded, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
All available evidence says the kid and the “quote” were made up by a sportswriter looking to enliven his copy. No matter. “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is as embedded in American lore as the Gettysburg Address.
And thus we invoke it now, a century later, as baseball fans watch Major League baseball owners and players assume postures that increasingly warn we could have no Major League baseball at all in 2020.
Say it ain’t so.
In the good news, the two sides seem to be talking and both have said yes, they’d love to play some ball this year.
In the less good news, each side has so far indicated it wants to play on its own terms, and those terms sound way more than socially distanced.
The culprit here, as in every other corner of American life these last three months, is the coronavirus. Baseball was most of the way through spring training, a week or two from opening its regular season, when everything stopped. Which is essentially where we are now.
The dilemma is no one’s fault. The question is how to resume in its wake, and yes, both the owners and players have legitimate concerns.
The owners are losing piles of cash, and resuming play with no paying customers in the seats means losing more. True, much of baseball economics is driven by television revenue, but still, every paying customer is bringing $50-$100 to the park. Seat 30,000 people a night and after a while you’re talking real money.
The players, meanwhile, have fought for years to get a fair share of the cash their services generate. They don’t want to agree to anything that could be leveraged for backsliding in the future.
The financial issues are legitimate, though to be honest, a lot of baseball economics sounds like something they should teach at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
From the fan side, though, a couple of other notions seem salient.
1. Most of the country has suffered an economic jolt from the dislocations of our virus response. A lot of people have been dealt far worse hands than baseball team owners and Major League ballplayers — including, for one random example, the tens of thousands of people who work at baseball stadiums, parking cars and pouring Diet Cokes and tending to the grounds and explaining how to get to section 212 in the mezzanine.
They don’t like how things broke, either. They just don’t have the luxury of saying “Y’know, I’m okay” and staying home.
2. Baseball might want to think about its long-term interests. Many of us still think it’s America’s best sport, but even in that group, a lot of folks admit it’s hard to call it our National Pastime any more.
There’s nothing wrong with other sports, and no, it’s not a competition. We have room for football, basketball, hockey, soccer, NASCAR and all the rest.
But there was a time, not in the distant past, when America’s marquee sports names were Jackie Robinson or Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron or Tom Seaver. Now they’re more likely to be LeBron or Steph or Tom Brady.
There are many reasons for this, some of them not baseball’s fault. It’s more of a TV world now and football is perfect for TV. Football and basketball also benefit from betting, whether straight wagers or office pools, and they have popular development leagues, called colleges, that baseball does not.
Baseball is also getting more expensive. Taking the kids to a game now can mean dropping a couple of hundred bucks, which means fewer kids are seeing games. That may help explain why anecdotal analysis would suggest baseball fans are getting older, and often whiter, in a country where youth is served and color is moving more toward a rainbow.
3. Baseball is just plain dumb if it blows the incredible opportunity of this moment.
The first major team sport to return from the virus shutdown will reap the burst of delight that comes with declaring yes, normal is now in sight.
There will be fresh sports on TV. Guys will have something to talk about again. We may not have won the war, but this is a big battle, and the first sport back plants that victory flag.
And baseball players and owners sit in their rooms tossing out proposals they know the other side will reject.
Yes, yes, that’s how negotiating works. But negotiating is a lousy spectator sport, a fact tacitly acknowledged by NASCAR, the NBA, college football and the NFL, among others, who seem well on the way to agreeing on plans that start things up again.
Okay, there may be weird caveats like limited or no fans. It’s still sports.
Baseball won’t vanish, even if no one plays a single game this year. But if that happens it will start 2021 will serious injuries, including the fact that a good number of fans will very likely realize they didn’t miss baseball that much and don’t really need it any more.
In an age bursting with sport and entertainment options, no sport is guaranteed a prime roster spot.
It wasn’t that many years ago that every sports fan knew boxing champions. Now, who knows one? Boxing has practically knocked itself out. Not long ago, track and field produced national stars. Now, off the radar.
Baseball is too embedded, and too good a sport, to recede into a small niche. But it’s got ground to lose if no one points out that the worst strategy for both sides is throwing knockdown pitches at each other, because in the end they’re knocking down themselves.
That crestfallen Shoeless Joe kid didn’t exist in 1920. But baseball fans in 2020 know exactly how he felt.
Say it ain’t so.