Take Me Out to the Mind Game

Major Garrett

I want to be optimistic about the return of baseball.

I want to revel in the anticipation I have felt for every season since I was seven and my hometown joined the Major Leagues.

I want to believe this season will have meaning, the players will truly care and the game I love will be played with gusto, greatness and passion. Daniel Bard gives me a sliver of hope.

I want to believe there will be genuine drama and playoff tension; nail-biting World Series moments and championship exhilaration.

But I can’t.

I don’t see it.

What I do see is a giant mind game we are all playing — telling ourselves this misshapen malignancy of a season will mean anything to anyone.

This column is about baseball, not the Padres. I love the Padres and always will. But I can’t even summon enthusiasm for them – not under these conditions. Candidly, my nightmare is jaw-dropping Padre success blighted by a garish, hairy asterisk.

I want to believe. I want to have childish awe about what is to come. I want to believe this remarkable game cannot be blemished or bulldozed by a pandemic.

But I can’t.

Almost nothing about this season will be recognizable in the moment or on the other side of Covid-19. It will be regretted almost as soon as it starts, grow ever more burdensome as it continues, and be bidden bitter good riddance upon its conclusion.

Where to begin?

A 60-game season is preposterous. It has no meaning in the statistical history of the game. It has no seasonal rhythm. It magnifies streaks and slumps, something a long season evens out — as it must because baseball is a game of grinding perseverance, accumulated averages and unmistakable tendencies (ask the analytics department).

This shortened season has been preceded by a truncated “Summer Camp.” That is a mind game too. Summer camp? Are you nuts? This pre-season has as much to do with a typical season as a severed tail has to do with the skittering lizard that has left it behind. Batters have not had enough reps. Pitchers have not moved beyond the “dead arm” phase that typically shows up midway through spring training.

The 60-game season will intensify pressure on each player and I fear that will mean more injuries. I’ve watched the “Summer Camp” games for a week. The players are not going full tilt. When they do, there will be oblique strains, quad pulls and shoulder tears. Either that or the players will never go full tilt, we will notice and feel debased in the process.

The “Summer” games I’ve watched look sodden and painfully slow — as if the players just woke up or suffer indigestion after a heavy pre-game meal. I don’t blame the players. There’s no verve. No fans. No bench camaraderie. No spitting. No high fives. No post-homer antics. No walk up songs. No hecklers. No hand-made signs. No autograph seekers. No whipping cream pies during post-game interviews.

No energy. No fun.

What is there?

Cavernous canyons of empty seats. Idiotic “fan” cutouts. Social distancing in the bullpen. Players arrayed in box seats like pieces of See’s candy nobody wants. Masks in some places but not others. Batting gloves worn perpetually.

Nothing looks right. Everything is ill-fitting and jarring to the eye — especially that hideous scar of a Nike swoosh on the front of every jersey. Even worse, manufactured fan noise is piped into the void. This does nothing to enhance the baseball experience. Rather, it radiates the atmospheric gloom of a soon-to-be-canceled sitcom.

The play-by-play announcers are not in the stadium. The video feeds are provided by the home team — problematic for visiting team announcers trying to dance around perpetual video cut-always of players on the other roster. All of this looks and feels plastic, forced and farcical. It will not improve.

After the “season” begins, players will realize how warped a 60-game season actually is. There will be no time for chemistry. There will only be time for coping. Coping with isolation. Coping with rule changes. Coping with weird scheduling (this team AGAIN). Coping with ersatz divisions. Coping with inevitable positive coronavirus tests and the disruptions that will ripple through the clubhouse and roster.

Coping is not competing. It is my belief this will dawn on players and agents very soon and all manner of excuse making and context correcting will ensue. This will start with any star player who gets off to a slow start — “Hey, this is a strange season and this isn’t me and this isn’t how I normally play.”  These reasonable assertions will carry with them the imperative of money — now and in the future. The looming Mookie Betts deal with the Dodgers illustrates this phenomenon – get the money now before the economics of the game changes or the harshness of a 2020 statistical glitch mars future earning potential.

I predict this dynamic will be visited in reverse on players who get off to an incredibly hot start.  General managers will have every incentive to tamp down future value credentials of surprise 2020 stars — “Hey, this season isn’t representative of the rigors of a real season; we will need a much larger sample size to pay more.”

These considerations are and will be too real to ignore. They will shape the one thing remaining about this season that is recognizable — players are being paid and teams are collecting revenue. That is why this “season” is happening, isn’t it? The nation does not need it. It will not be a psychic balm — not these vacant, socially distant sleeper session games. Baseball will, at best, be a distraction….a thistle in the scorched summer grass.

I haven’t even gotten to the unfortunate Canadian covid-19 vagabonds, the Toronto Blue Jays; the absence of the minor leagues; the universal DH; the runner on second base in the extra innings or the moronic three-batter requirement for relief pitchers (expanded rosters make this patently unnecessary). Grafted goofiness besmearing an elegant game.

What’s my alternative?

No season.

That’s right.

Cancel this season and focus all baseball energies on the communities in which the teams play — use all that testing capacity for the people who live next door. Give back to the hospitals and food banks, the schools and homeless shelters. Baseball teams are community assets with big budgets and hidden financial books. Don’t pretend these teams are poor. They are not. The players are not poor, either.  Burdens are everywhere. There are ways to be generous and ample means to do so.

Get creative.

Focus on the fans and their hardships. No one in baseball has an actual hardship compared to the people truly suffering in every city that has a Major League club or minor league team. Alleviate that suffering and you will gain more than can be imagined. Baseball will be remembered, cherished and redefined.

One other thing.

Major League Baseball and the players union should devote their remaining energy this year to negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that begins before the 2021 season and lasts for as long as possible. Labor peace is what the game needs, not this misbegotten, indulgent mini-season contraption.

Major Garrett was born and raised in Clairemont, is Chief Washington Correspondent for CBS News, host of “The Takeout” & “The Debrief” podcasts and author of the book “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams and Occasional Blackouts of His Extraordinary First Year in Office.”