Sports have felt trivial thanks to the pandemic, but they’re hardly blameless

When teams aren't playing every game to win, even when it makes sense, it makes it a lot harder to invest in them.

Unwilling to pay his asking price, Cleveland sent shortstop Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets in a long-expected trade on Thursday.
Unwilling to pay his asking price, Cleveland sent shortstop Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets in a long-expected trade on Thursday. –The Associated Press

COMMENTARY

Winning, we sports types have long known, is the solution to everything. It’s getting there that’s the problem.

With sports viewership through the floor in plenty of corners, the brazen nature of some of the paths increasingly chased feeling harder to ignore, maybe we need to reassess the idea there’s nothing that could turn us away from the games en masse.

I made the point, when the best homegrown Red Sox of the last 60 years was winning the World Series for the Dodgers, that what impulse sent Mookie Betts west was not unique to Boston. The Betts trade was its most raw and brutal form, given his talent, his age, and the ledger sported by Fenway Sports Group, but we have seen it before and would soon see it again.

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Enter Thursday, when Cleveland traded Francisco Lindor — one of the five best players it’s produced in the Draft era — and no-slouch starter Carlos Carrasco to the Mets for a fistful of $1 scratchers. Lindor, perhaps more than Betts and Boston, wanted to stay in Cleveland, but on terms commensurate to his place in the game. As here, Cleveland passed, and got for him what it could.

It is, in a sports context, entirely sensible and completely abhorrent. Teams devote millions to scouting and development in hopes of producing MVP-level talents to build around, and leagues billions more to create parity where every team can keep those players and win, yet Betts and Lindor were each traded before their 28th birthday. Within 12 months of each other. While the Cubs, one slot behind the Red Sox as the fourth of five $3 billion baseball franchises, are in the second year of a major selloff and reset.

“There will be patience required in certain areas,” GM Theo Epstein wrote in his Chicago resignation letter, an artful spin on “dump a bunch of talent and lose for a while, just like in the mid-2010s.”

Entirely sensible and completely abhorrent can also be applied to last Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff all but laid down on national television, improving its draft position more important than competing in a game-deciding an NFL playoff berth. The NHL putting ads on its helmets and brand names on its divisions isn’t a wins-and-losses discussion, but it hits at the same nerves.

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As fans and observers, it’s simple: Every team should play to win, every game, every year. For us, it’s fandom. An issue of the heart. For those in the business, it is a business, and one where the motivations are far less singularly pathed.

None of this is new, of course. The Kansas City Athletics were little more than a Yankees farm team in the 1950s and 60s, almost all its best talent ending up in pinstripes. Auto racing around the world has featured “start and park” teams with no interest in winning for decades. Tanking games was so widespread in the run-up to the talent-laden 1984 NBA Draft, the league created the Lottery to try and disincentivize losing. Is this all just a momentary confluence? Perhaps.

The pandemic has made clear, however, that big-time sports are not unassailable. Lowest-rated World Series by almost a third. NBA Finals ratings down 51 percent. Lowest-rated Stanley Cup Final since 2007. Horse racing’s Triple Crown down by half. The fall Masters and US Open golf were crushed opposing football, but even the king-of-the-hill NFL was handing out make-good discounts to advertisers.

The causes are myriad, up to and including a chunk of the audience bristling to worthwhile discussions of social issues when they’re just trying to relax. But even accepting that these things are cyclical, that this winter’s win-now San Diego Padres are descendants of the ugly fire sale team led by Tom Werner in the early 1990s, it feels like we’re staring down a tipping point, especially in baseball.

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The product is as ugly as it’s been in decades. Games take longer now than they did when the first modern pace-of-play rules were implemented in 2015. The strikeout rate has jumped 10 percent in five years, and 20 percent in 10. Thirty-five percent of plate appearances the last two seasons — better than one in three — were action-free walks, strikeouts, or home runs. Modern replay, about to begin its eighth season, still sucks the emotion out of the room at nearly its every use. And now, two of its five most-valuable teams will have meh’d their way through one of the last two seasons, buying a lotto ticket for future contention.

I get why. I can’t help but wonder why the sport’s built in a way to reward that.

Baseball has done an incredible job marshaling information to most brutally build winners, on the budget sheet and the ballfield. It has not spent near enough time marshaling it to beautifully build one to most anyone outside diehard circles.

“It’s the greatest game in the world, but there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving,” said Epstein upon his departure, famously apologizing for his place in it. “We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give fans more of what they want.”

Efficiencies. Reorganizations. We see this every day, in nearly every aspect of life. Things get a little more profitable and a little less human, and just as in our sports examples, it’s entirely sensible and completely abhorrent at the same time.

One of the things I hope we take out of the last 10 months, plus however many more we weather until our world returns to normal, is an understanding of the things that matter and the things that don’t. What we want, versus what we need. Sports have felt trivial at a lot of points in the last 10 months, these last few days certainly among them. That’s why ratings are way down, more than anything else, and that obviously won’t last forever.

But whether what the Cubs and Cleveland and the Red Sox and the Eagles all have done is an anomaly or a sign of a growing problem, it is at very least a reminder that in the same way sports won so many of us over at some point in our lives, they really can lose us, too. They lost a lot of us this year. Their future, and our future, is not assured. It must be worked for. It must be earned.

I don’t know what the answers are; if I did, I’d happily share them. Because the games feel a little less important when you look at the Cubs, Cleveland, the Red Sox, and the Eagles and think, “Yeah, that’s entirely sensible.”

And that’s when the idea of continuing to live and die with this stuff gets closer to feeling completely abhorrent.

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