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August 22, 2002

Breaking Balls

The Spectre of September 11th

by Derek Zumsteg

There are many who have wailed in the press and on television, saying that major league baseball will suffer catastrophic public reaction and possibly be destroyed entirely if a labor action means there's no baseball on September 11th. Does baseball owe it to us to play on that day, and is it appropriate for us to use the death of innocents to try and intervene in labor negotiations?

No and absolutely not, in that order.

There's an instinct to clutch at reassurance in the face of events larger than ourselves. Baseball faces a unique burden here among national entertainment of being the "national past time," even while people mock it as being #2 to football. Baseball's history was built on the commitment of generations of fans, and the long season makes fandom a much deeper and more personal experience than watching ten football games a year. Every day from April to October, fans follow their team and their rivals and see players have great nights and terrible ones. Our team's fortunes accumulate slowly as a background to the events in our own lives. That someone might seek to weave the threads of baseball into larger events is understandable, but misguided and wrong.

Baseball stopped play after the attacks, citing safety and respect. At the time all I wanted was to go back to the ballpark and see forty thousand Mariners fans with me in one place, singing the national anthem, cheering our team, as part of a return to normal life. The same people who then said the loss of life had made them realize that baseball and sports in general were ultimately meaningless are many of the same people who now argue that sports are meaningful enough that baseball must accommodate their grief since doing so now suits their purposes. This is a crass betrayal of all they briefly pretended they understood.

What would it accomplish for baseball players to not strike through September 11th? Waiting to strike until the third week of September would be seen as a spineless move--in fact one prominent columnist called a end-of-September date "unacceptable in the shadow of 9/11" so delay helps nothing. Insisting that no strike should carry through September 11th is a choice for hollow symbolism over substance, and reinforces 9/11's strange position as a national disaster that requires constant revisiting. Should no bad thing be allowed to happen anywhere around that day? What if the players striking makes for a long term CBA and labor peace? Is that bad?

Should we commemorate the attacks? Should we commemorate the year's anniversary by rallying around each other to maintain our resolve, to continue what will be a long and difficult conflict that already affects our daily lives and the world? Or should we spend the day depressed, watching CNN play only the moderately-disturbing video footage, pointedly avoiding re-airing what I saw when I woke up to find my wife crying and shaking that morning?

And in either case, how would baseball being on strike mean anything? If you should be enlisting at the local Army recruiter, or if you think a moment of silence and self-reflection is appropriate, how does not having baseball played that day change things? How would having a strike affect either of those, and why would it be an insult?

None of this obligates the owners and players to put aside their best interests for purposes of national self-flagellation, any more than any of us should be forced to work for free, make a donation to the ACLU, or turn over our fellow citizens to the "enemy combatant" camps. There is no connection between terrorist attacks and baseball, and baseball owes no obligation to the terrorist attacks.

Baseball plays and has been on strike on August 24th, when the British burned the Executive Mansion in 1814 as part of their larger and highly successful Capitol-burning campaign. We play football if December 7th is a game night, though for many years we remembered Pearl Harbor Day and services were held at the Memorial in Hawaii... and never have I heard someone say that we should break this union or that end that factory lock-out because they're not working that day.

We work, play sports, take vacations, strike throughout the year on days then thousands more Americans died fighting their fellow man in our Civil War in the 1860s - Grant's drive on Richmond killed at least 61,000 of his own soldiers between May and June, but we don't give another thought to heading to the beach, or watching the Expos play the Marlins in a pleasant, meaningless game.

American history is filled with tragedy, and we persevere. The country has wisely decided to largely ignore our greatest tragedies and defeats and remain optimistic in choosing our remembrances. We celebrate our triumph of independence, and our national anthem is a song of defiance in the face of the British troops who marched up and down the Eastern Seaboard from 1812 until 1815.

Events of September 11th will be remembered, the brave honored, the victims mourned, revenge exacted on the guilty. We should not cower before a date on our calendars, until we are unable to think rationally, make decisions on their own merits, or get on with our nation's business. And that includes the rights of free men to protect their livelihood.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Memorial Day

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