On Friday night, the 2020 Tigers will play a regular season baseball game. This is not a particularly noteworthy sentence if you’re a time traveler reading from January, but for the rest of us who lived through everything that has happened on planet Earth over the last six months, it is worthy of note. Baseball is back. Well, presumably it’s back. I’m writing this on Thursday and a lot can happen in 36 hours.
I have not had a lot to say about the Tigers during the last couple of years after writing hundreds of posts about them between 2012 and 2017. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I started this site because I was miserable in grad school and needed an escape, but that need for escape ended a long time ago. I haven’t blogged much in the last few years partly because I simply haven’t needed the outlet because I’m not miserable all day at work. But the other reason I haven’t written much in the last couple of years is because I’ve found my self less and less interested in the Tigers — who have been terrible — and less and less capable of contributing much to the overall discourse surrounding the game at large.
I have written on a few occasions about my growing alienation with the game (i.e., Major League Baseball as an institution, not the actual sport). I’ve followed the league and the Tigers over the last couple of years, but I haven’t consumed the sport in the way I did in my teens and early twenties. There was a time in my life where I would spend hours each day watching baseball and consuming and/or producing baseball content. Last year, it was rare that I would watch a full nine innings in one day. Part of this is simply a story about how my life is different and how I’m different, but I think part of it is driven by how hard it is to really care about a team that is so militantly trying to lose. Presumably, the 2021 Tigers will be in a position to try to win games given the development timetable of the various prospects and young players.
So that makes 2020 kind of a weird year. The Tigers blew it up in 2017. There was no way to put together a good product in 2018. They tanked in kind of an off-putting way in 2019 because they could have put together a better product without sacrificing the future and they simply chose not to for the benefit of Ilitch Holdings. Going into 2020, it didn’t seem like the Tigers were interested in getting much better, but they signed a few players (Nova, Cron, Schoop, and Romine) who will solidify the bottom end of the projections a bit. Clearly, the Tigers are going to hoard their dollars and hope the prospects pay off. But under any reasonable timeline, the 2021 Tigers need to try to win. That makes the 2020 team the last year in the wilderness. The last year where we will enter the season with no real expectations.
Which I guess makes this whole thing even more absurd than it already is. I’ve been quite vocal on Twitter that I believe playing baseball in the United States this year is wildly irresponsible. Not only does it create a risk for the players and staff, it could lead to additional community spread. And this is to say nothing of the fact that baseball is taking testing resources from the broader community that is still in desperate need. It would be one thing to play baseball in the aftermath of tragedy. But the tragedy is still unfolding and there is a very real case to be made that playing baseball could make it worse. The benefits of baseball simply do not outweigh the costs unless your only operating principle is cashing in on your television contracts, which most of us do not have.
It seems particularly weird for the 2020 Tigers to even exist. Sure, it’s good for the long term development of Casey Mize and Matt Manning to face live competition, but nothing that happens in the next three months matters beyond that. The Tigers, a team that is not trying to win and hasn’t fielded a competitive roster since 2016, is going to fly all over the country and subject hundreds of people to an increased risk of contracting a deadly virus. For what?
On top of that baseline, the season is 60 games. There will be a runner on second base when extra innings begin. High-fives are cancelled. No one is allowed to spit. There will be no fans. Nothing that happens during this faux season will count, even if the season is somehow played to completion. We won’t be able to view the stats alongside other seasons. Whoever wins the World Series will get to claim victory, but only in the narrowest possible way. There will be no pile-on at the mound and no champagne showers.
I know people have talked this to death, but everything that happens this year comes with an asterisk. It’s a standalone season with its own set of rules. People are going to try to make it seem normal, or like some sort of triumph. But we know that it is not. Maybe there will be good news on the therapeutic or vaccine front in the near future and we can start to imagine a more normal 2021 season. But until the world stops burning, it’s hard to see why we’re doing this.
We’re going to wake up tomorrow and it’s going to be Opening Day. Normally, we’d all think fondly about Ernie Harwell’s recitation from the Song of Solomon:
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Yet those words are hollow this year. The winter isn’t past. There will be baseball this year, but nothing about it will be real.