The Fields are empty

By Ken Napzok

The sounds we love are silent. The dugouts are bare. The fields are empty. 

There is no crack of the bat, the smack of ball hitting glove, no roar of the crowd. 

Baseball, like most of the world, has been put on hold. 

As the worldwide situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic exploded around all of us, baseball followed the NBA and NHL and pressed paused just short of starting the 2020 season… and I’ve been thinking about what to write about that ever since. In truth, there aren’t many words to say. No matter what you feel about the response to this outbreak — too much, too little, or somewhere in between — the truth of the matter is that this is where we are at. Be here now, I always believe… and right now… baseball and so many other signifiers of our daily lives are on hold, fading away, or a thing of a very recent past. 

The fields are empty. 

One cannot help but go to the falls of 2001 and 1989. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Loma Prieta earthquake remain fresh in the minds of many baseball fans. Outside of contentious labor strife-related stoppages, those are the only two times baseball has had to step aside, and it is never anything short of surreal. 

Major League Baseball is just a part of life and has been for as long as our eyes can see. 

World War I didn’t stop it…. It only shortened the 1918 season. The flu pandemic that took the lives of 700,000 Americans in 1918 just missed colliding with the game full force but did take the lives of some who were part of the game. World War II severely affected baseball and its quality — but President Roosevelt famously decreed the game should go on in his Green Light Letter of January 1942.

Yet in 1989 and 2001, baseball stopped, and the eerie silence seemed to drive home the severity of both situations. And so it is now in 2020.

I am not one to panic. I am not one to mix hope with false hope. I believe in vigilance as well as common sense. So, I believe in my heart we will flatten all the curves, dig deep, and find a way through this all, and all will return to normal. Or some sort of new normal. (I’m shocked at the number of men I see washing their hands in bathrooms NOW as opposed to how little I saw before.) It’s as if I constantly hear Gandalf telling Major League Baseball “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” 

We’ll get there.

But for now, we must let the game step aside and let the history books choose how to remember this season. It might not go the full 162. It might not show up until late in the summer. And it just might not return this year at all. But that is where we are at. 

The fields are empty.

I do worry about the countless stadium and organization-based employees whose jobs — and therefore livelihoods — have been affected by the stoppage of the games themselves. All 30 major league clubs seem to have begun to address it. 

I hope you never take a hot dog vendor or parking gate employee for granted again. 

I also worry about the countless minor league players who are chasing major league dreams on a salary far from the prime time. The term “professional ballplayer” comes with a large number of assumptions. The biggest one being that those kids being jostled in their sleep while a creaky bus takes them down a dusty highway to the next small city are somehow rolling around on piles of major league money once they get to their next stop. They aren’t and all of that had to be taken into consideration before shutting it all down. All 30 major league clubs seem to have begun to address it. 

There are a lot more questions to ask and many more answers to get. We just don’t know. None of us know. We’ve never been through this before. 

But the games did stop in 1989. The World Series was cut in half. Two games when it was all normal. And two more games, weeks later, when none of it seemed to matter yet every pitch seemed to bring life back to normal.

The games also stopped in 2001. In the dark, scary, and confusing days that followed, baseball seemed like it would never matter again. Then Mike Piazza drove a pitch deep into the New York night and a stadium, a city, and a nation seemed to take a collective step toward healing. 

The fields are empty, and nothing seems normal. 

Yet that first step forward will come. It will be delivered on the wings of a bat striking ball and the crowds will cheer once more. Baseball will be back. So will we. 

We always do. 

Time for The Show 

This section of the column is NOT sponsored by MLB The Show 20. I paid for the game with my own allowance just as I have in previous seasons. The makers of MLB The Show do not know I exist. 

But thank God, Babe Ruth, and all that is holy that the game exists. 

Yeah, I grew up playing some of the great baseball games. Like Fred Savage in the opening of The Princess Bride, I played Hardball while needing to know basic computer code to launch it on my Dad’s Commodore 64. 

All you needed to win was to get McCall and Desoto on base for Contos to crank another home run. (Though I always thought Miller on the Red team was an underrated slugger — truly one of the great catchers of the 1980s.) It was a great baseball game.

So was Micro League Baseball, RBI Baseball, and Bases Loaded. Who didn’t love starting a beanball brawl with your good friends on a Friday night during junior high? Oh, I wish you could still fight in modern baseball games. Sure. I get why not, but, come on, who doesn’t want to just scrape on the field after giving up a big one? Anyway… I digress… those were all great baseball games, too. 

So was Ken Griffey Jr presents Major League Baseball. Particularly the 1994 SNES version in which all of the rosters taught you about famous authors, historical figures, and the entire Los Angeles-based punk scene of the 1980s. Exene Cervenka was one hell of a good shortstop for Dodgers on that game and lead singer for X! 

EA’s MVP games were excellent as well, but before this spins off into a Best Of list, let me take it back to where this road trip down memory lane began — I love MLB The Show. 

Particularly Franchise Mode.

Oh, how I love negotiating contract extensions and determining which sponsorships will best help my organization.

No, seriously, I do. I really do. 

I get down into the weeds… because… well… you can. Adjusting training settings for a struggling catcher? Absolutely. Hit the weight room, champ. Grooming a closer of the future and then packaging him in a deadline deal for a proven starter? Holy Theo Epstein that’s the best feeling. Holding a tough, no-nonsense press conference with myself after a three-game losing streak in mid-September with my grip on the Wild Card slipping away? You better believe I’m going to hold myself and my digital clubhouse to the flames. We’ve got to win ballgames, people!

MLB The Show has always been the type of video game that continues to find little ways to help me celebrate the game I love. And I’m sure I’m not alone. 

And we all need this connection to baseball now. 

So, now is the time, friends. Fire up your console of choice, put on your favorite quarantine sweatpants, and start living out your baseball dreams from the couch. 

The game itself may be gone — but everything you love about it is in the game and ready to get you through these dark times. 

Including injuries.

Damn it. I just lost my starting third baseman.

Does anyone want to trade me a bat? 

This week in baseball history…

… a great career came to a close. Just not on the field where it should have. 

On March 25th, 2006, Jeff Bagwell announced that he would begin the 2006 season on the disabled list and, though playing again seemed doubtful, he would be seeking options on what to do with the bone spurs in his throwing shoulder that had already shut down his ability to play in the field. 

The once mighty slugger — with 449 home runs to his name — would never play again. 

Jeff Bagwell’s Major League career started as a footnote that soon turned into a trivia answer asked over and over again at bar trivia nights around the world. The Red Sox needed an arm for their 1990 stretch run, so they dealt the prospect Bagwell to Houston straight up for right-hander Larry Anderson. Anderson, who looked like your hip, funny P.E. teacher from high school, did finish the last month of the season with a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings before tanking in the ALCS. Bagwell hit the Astros big league roster in 1991 and took home the Rookie of the Year award. 

And he never stopped hitting. 

In many ways, Bagwell was one of those players that served as a transition between the game’s eras. He was drafted in 1989, a byproduct of the 1980s era, but he was certainly cut in the emerging modern era template. His stat lines of his first three seasons were of the previous era. He hit 15, 18, and 20 home runs in ‘91, ‘92, and ’93 respectively. He drove in 82, 96, and 88 runs as well. These were great numbers at the time. He arrived as a star and kept that mantle. But baseball started to change in 1994 — even before the strike — and Bagwell was one of the players leading the way.

His numbers ballooned much to the delight of fantasy baseball owners and those counting ticket sales. It was a new era indeed with expansion pitching, smaller parks, and other * things * helping a lot the numbers get bigger.  Yes, Bagwell was dogged by PED rumors along with many other players of that time period, but nothing ever stuck to him. He — like many — was just simply guilty by being on the same field as other others. 

From 1996 to 2003, Jeff Bagwell was always around the top of the charts with one of the more memorable right-handed swings the game has ever seen. Season after season, Bagwell and his cohort Craig Biggio kept swatting that baseball around the National League parks. And it was fun to watch the Killer B’s at the height of their power.

Yet by 2001, Bagwell was already feeling the effects of an arthritic shoulder had started to rear their ugly head and the clock was already ticking on his great career. Bagwell’s 2005 season was painful to watch. He missed most of it, but when he finally did take the field, he could barely make any throws from first. (If only the Astros could have moved to the American League then!) However, Bagwell willed himself onto the field and was able to take at-bats in the Astros first-ever World Series appearance in 2005. What would end up being his last official appearance as a player took place in the seventh inning of Game 4. He grounded out as a pinch hitter. Two innings later the White Sox were champions and Bagwell rode off into uncertainty. 

He had no final run around the league. There were no retirement ceremonies at different stadiums. No final send-off. Bagwell’s career was now in the hands of insurance adjusters, mediators, and doctors. 

It was a harsh reminder for all of us. There but for the grace of God and Nolan Ryan go we…

Bagwell held on for the entire 2006 season. Even showing up for spring training and logging some at-bats in a vain effort to find a way back. The team – the big business corporation protecting the bottom line — wanted him to shut it down so they could collect on an insurance claim. The player — the eternal kid playing a simple game of ball — wanted to give it one more shot. 

The Astros declined an option on his contract for 2007 and a month later Jeff Bagwell called it quits for good on December 15th, 2006. 

But the ending should never be the last word on the stories these players tell. 

Jeff Bagwell’s career was a thrill to watch… from footnote to Hall of Famer. 

Walk Off Quote

“May the sun never set on American baseball.” – President Harry S. Truman, clutch late-inning performer.

***

Ken Napzok can’t wait to talk about silly baseball things again, but he is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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