The case for Major League Baseball returning to play for the 2020 season, like the cases for the NBA and NHL, was based at least in part on the notion that sports provide an important societal function. Sports represent normalcy. Sports represent better, happier days.
Ratings for all three of these leagues have taken a noticeable hit since returning in July, even beyond the general downward trend of television ratings for pretty much everything in an era of cord-cutting and streaming. There is no single reason for the drop, but MLB’s argument that it represented healing was built on two false premises. One, that a sixty-game season in front of empty stadiums with semi-regular game postponements followed by a nearly doubly large postseason represented “normal”. And two, and more importantly, that the nation or the world itself was normal. Baseball did not return out of some sort of civic obligation to provide a distraction (never mind that a “distraction” or any indication that things were back to normal was a dangerous thing). It returned because the league had money to make.
That Major League Baseball’s 2020 season concluded at Globe Life Field, a shed-like monstrosity in Arlington, Texas, is poetic, as the stadium itself is a metaphor for MLB. Opening just twenty-six years after Globe Life Park in Arlington, an unexceptional but extremely serviceable park across the street from Globe Life Field, and funded in no small part thanks to nearly half a billion dollars in public financing, this stadium is, even beyond its dreadful aesthetics, a public policy failure. And although Arlington’s geography did make it a perfectly reasonable neutral site to choose for a World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, we ought not pretend it was chosen for any reason other than that Major League Baseball found a local government willing to let them sell tickets and make more money.
Two decades ago, the Tampa Bay Rays would have been universally positioned as the scrappy underdog in the 2020 World Series, and I would have bought in completely. The big money teams—usually the New York Yankees, to a lesser extent the Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers—were the evil organizations crushing tiny mom and pop billionaire vanity projects like the Tampa Bay Rays. Even today, that the Tampa Bay Rays had a 2020 payroll smaller than the 2021 salary of Dodgers superstar right fielder Mookie Betts was exalted as a sign of virtue (in calculating this fun fact, the Rays’ payroll was prorated to its shortened season total and Betts’s salary is based on a 162-game schedule, so the fun fact is wildly misleading, but that doesn’t change that the Dodgers have a much larger payroll).
Of course, when you dig even slightly deeper into the Rays, it’s not hard to realize the lie. While the Tampa Bay Rays are small compared to most MLB teams, Forbes Magazine values the franchise at over a billion dollars, and their primary owner, Stuart Sternberg, has a net worth of $800 million. Despite being championship contenders on a regular basis, the Rays consistently carry payrolls in the eight figures; in 2018, each MLB team received nine figures in shared revenue alone. The Rays have plenty of likable players, fans that may be relatively low in volume but who are passionate and deserve joy of their own, and a front office which has done an impressive job working within the largely artificial constraints they have been given. But I can’t bring myself to root for them.
Feeling gross about the Rays organization led to me rooting for the Dodgers in the World Series, but I won’t pretend that this is a perfect ethical decision, either. This is a team, after all, whose very existence in Los Angeles is because former owner Walter O’Malley demanded that the city of New York build him a new stadium (he refused to accept a publicly financed stadium that he would have to share with the Giants). As a former fan of a football team which also rotates around the country like it’s a volleyball court in order to line the pockets of ownership via stadium deals, it’s not exactly a practice I enjoy. This is a team whose park, Dodger Stadium, is perhaps the most beautiful in the sport, but whose construction involved the displacing of thousands of primarily poor Mexican-American residents from their homes. On a level more specific to the 2020 team, the final 2 1/3 innings of the series were pitched by Julio Urias, who is less than a year and a half removed from an arrest for domestic battery.
Enjoying Major League Baseball, or any major sports league, increasingly feels like an exercise in compartmentalization. Thinking about the histories of the teams involved will make you wish they could both lose. Thinking about the public resources being used to make the sport happen on the scale in which it happens is one ethical dilemma after another. But in the end, I’m able to do it. I don’t consider this virtuous, and it’s probably to at least some degree a moral failing, but when I see Mookie Betts rob a home run, I don’t think about the fraught and frequently problematic history of the Dodgers. I just see a cool thing happening.
On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers won their first World Series in 32 years. That it was being played in a limited-seating neutral site rather than, as it would have been under normal circumstances, a packed Dodger Stadium did little to dull the visceral excitement of the moment. Most Dodgers players, most notably Clayton Kershaw, had never experienced the thrill of a championship, and for a few minutes, the joy of Kershaw, one of the greatest players of his era, slaying his postseason demons with the sport’s ultimate triumph, felt cathartic even to a Dodgers non-fan such as myself.
But then, word came out that Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had been removed from Game 6 not for any sort of strategic rationale but because he had tested positive for COVID-19. As a professional athlete in impeccable physical condition whose age of 35 could only be considered old in the realm of sports, Turner himself is at very low risk to die of the disease. But despite MLB’s self-congratulations about how they kept players safe from the pandemic, players have been affected in ways which fall short of near-immediate death: Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez was sidelined for the 2020 season and has faced lingering heart conditions as the result of COVID-19. That Rodriguez contracted the disease while away from the team and that MLB cannot reasonably be held accountable for the diagnosis is beside the point—he demonstrates that, despite a lot of bluster to the contrary, COVID-19 can have material impacts on young, otherwise healthy people. And while, statistically, Turner will probably make a full recovery, he was within close proximity of a large number of Dodgers and Rays players and coaches throughout last night’s game. Those players and coaches themselves would, upon leaving MLB’s semi-bubble in Arlington, return to their families across the country and around the world.
I was able, as I so often am, to compartmentalize the Turner news by reasoning that MLB handled the situation appropriately—officials were informed of his diagnosis, and Turner was removed from the game. It was unfortunate that Turner, a pleasant and likable late bloomer, could not be present on the field for his team’s victory, but this was the medically necessary precaution.
And then, Major League Baseball showed its true colors. Preventing Justin Turner from going onto the field to celebrate with his teammates after his diagnosis was not, despite comments from Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, impossible. It would have been quite simple, really. But they chose to allow Turner, sometimes masked but often not (not that wearing a mask, particularly when you have already been diagnosed with COVID-19, is a magical immunity cloak rather than a good but imperfect risk mitigation technique), to celebrate. Seven and a half months ago, sports around the world shut down because one player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for the disease. By October 27, despite the disease being exponentially more widespread, the sports world deemed holding a trophy essential work.
I do believe in personal responsibility, and I do think Justin Turner is a giant doofus who deserves to be roundly roasted for going back onto the field last night despite knowing he had COVID-19. But Major League Baseball had an ethical responsibility to stop Justin Turner, and it did not stop Justin Turner from going onto the field because it did not care. His presence wouldn’t lead to any games being postponed. The league put on a masquerade of caring about player safety because players needed to be present for the games, but Justin Turner will almost certainly be fully recovered by the time games start again, as would any teammates who might contract the disease.
Major League Baseball has long been built on a web of lies, and the latest exposed lie is that they care even a little bit about the safety of its players or of the general public. All MLB cared about all along was making as much money as it could. The league cried poor earlier this week, citing financial hardship brought on by the 2020 season, but that’s just another statement I have a hard time believing is not mostly a lie.
During the presentation of the Commissioner’s Trophy following last night’s game, Rob Manfred caught some flak for expressing happiness that the 2020 season was over, as “The commissioner hates baseball!” has become a recurring motif for his entire tenure. But this is one case where I agree wholeheartedly with Manfred. The 2020 season did not represent the world returning to normal. It represented the world, and particularly America, lying to itself. And Justin Turner’s grinning, maskless face being immortalized on photographs of the 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers is a perfect metaphor for it.