I know a guy. Actually, I know a lot of guys, but this one works for major league baseball. So I hit him up recently for the inside baseball on what’s happening inside baseball.
As with everything else, the difference between pre-Corona and post-Corona baseball comes down to money. The owners want to save it; players, coaches, and trainers want to preserve it. For instance, pre-Corona baseball held forty drafts. Post Corona will have just five. International players will join the draft, but not to give all teams access to the talent pool. Rather, it’s a cost-cutting measure.
The cost cutting may not stop there. Some owners want to eliminate minor league teams and take pruning shears to signing bonuses. Both moves could disrupt the farm system that has supported major league baseball for decades and is the envy of other sports. And my guy tells me that if universities cancel football, the money marked for baseball scholarships will disappear faster than a Jordan Hicks fastball.
Just as most universities are moving online, maybe indefinitely, so is baseball. This should be interesting, because baseball is as much performance as sport. The crowd is integral to the performance. What happens when there is no crowd, or when it is virtual? What will that do to the players? You can forget Glenn Close standing in her broad-brimmed, gossamer hat to inspire Robert Redford at the plate. He strikes out swinging, and Roy Hobbs goes down in flames.
Will fans “attend” games from their mobile, laptop, or home entertainment system? I imagine some lucky couple from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania being coaxed to smooch on “kisscam” to the delight of the entire viewing audience. If baseball execs are smart, that audience can be watching from anywhere around the globe, from Toronto to Tokyo and all points in between. Think of the do-re-mi to be made from advertising, which would make cost cutting a moot point.
Some interesting research could come out of an online season. We might finally see data related to the effect the crowd has on performance and outcomes. And does home field advantage really exist, or is it just more baseball romanticism for those who have never filled out a box score?
On the other hand, although there may be gains to going online, there is much to lose. Despite being steeped in a calculus of angles, vectors, and forces as well as statistical analysis and probability, baseball affects all the senses. You smell the grass, you hear the crack of the bat, you see the diving catch in centerfield, you feel the stomping of thousands of fans in anticipation of a strikeout to end the inning. You crunch Cracker Jack.
Most of all you live with uncertainty. In baseball, you never know and can never be sure about anything, which is the reason Yogi Berra’s quip about it not being over till it’s over resonates with so many people. Not much may take place over eight and a half innings, but then in half an inning your world turns upside down because of a slider that forgot to slide.
Hopefully, online baseball won’t become like video poker. That a World Series of Poker exists isn’t reassuring. In video poker, you get the feeling that nobody is watching you. They aren’t, of course, unless you count the surveillance cameras in the ceiling. That’s if you’re in a casino. But without other players and a few spectators, the game shifts from engagement to observation. And there’s the rub.
It’s bad enough that, as fans, we have to content ourselves with watching from afar and hurling mild insults every once in a while, or that we are bombarded with blaring video games on the scoreboard. All of that amounts to controlled observation; controlled, that is, by advertisers. With online baseball, expect more control, not less. After all, the camera goes where it wants. I imagine a seventh-inning stretch led by the same party official who wakes Winston Smith from his bed.
Maybe it won’t be so bad if online baseball serves as a temporary fix to the health crisis. The problem is that the combined revenue from advertising, television rights, and “ticket” sales will be too attractive to go back to business as usual. And, make no mistake, it is business.
I’m not crying foul. I’m just crying.