Image credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Just reading the title of N.K. Jemisin’s 2015 fantasy novel, The Fifth Season, prompts a vague unease. Seasons, conventionally, are understood as a bundled, symbiotic quartet; we measure our lives, and life writ large, by them. Jemisin’s novel fractures this natural backdrop to experience. In the storyworld she creates, cataclysmic geological events wreak environmental havoc, disrupting the orderly progression of time and rending the fabric of society–these seismic disruptions and their aftermaths are the “fifth seasons.” Cities, states, entire civilizations come to a brutal end and must be built anew, or abandoned as “deadcivs,” in the novel’s parlance. The natural cycles of time, the foundation upon which histories are constructed, are themselves wiped away.

Even though, with few exceptions, its schedule is marked on a calendar, the connotation of a baseball “season” retains its connections to natural cycles, a rite of spring stretching through the heat and long days of summer, coming to a conclusion in the crispness of autumn. For Major League Baseball, this has unfolded in some form, with two significant, labor-related exceptions, since 1876. With the indefinite suspension of both major- and minor-league play for 2020, however, baseball may be entering its own Fifth Season. 

In Jemisin’s novel, Fifth Seasons are, first and foremost, times of painful struggle. Obviously, this season of COVID-19 has seen crisis and tragedy at scales from the intimately personal to the expansively global–lost lives, lost jobs, lost industries, lost time. But Jemisin’s larger point is that, by naming these seismic, catastrophic events “seasons,” the world of her novels enshrines catastrophe in the canon of everyday experience: at the risk of both contradiction and cliché, disruption is the new normal. 

It’s one thing to treat the coronavirus pandemic as an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime event, from which life, and baseball, will shortly and fully recover. But it’s equally possible, given a number of factors both connected to and beyond the current crisis–economic disputes, environmental catastrophe, social and political unrest–that we are entering a season of history whose multiple future shocks will inevitably reverberate onto the baseball diamond. 

To gauge expectations about what the next decade might hold, I posted a Twitter poll asking for opinions, even just for the next decade, about the possibility of a disruption to baseball:

I was curious if others similarly imagined a future in which baseball seasons were more fragile and vulnerable to wider social, political, economic, and ecological shocks. Barely a quarter of the 175 respondents imagine a full run of baseball, without significant interruption, from 2021 through 2030. Those envisioning only one disrupted season are likely thinking about a possible work stoppage at the conclusion of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires at the end of 2021. 

The most interesting result, perhaps, is that 40.6 percent of respondents believe that, in the 10 seasons following 2020, there will be more than one significant disruption of play. No doubt that number would be lower were we enjoying a typical April, with the season getting into full swing with the warming weather and greening trees. Regardless, it seems that our current moment of extreme ab-normalcy has exposed the underlying fragility of baseball’s seasonal consistency.

You know better—this Season will be much, much longer than anyone could have planned for—but that won’t stop you from taking advantage of their misconception.

If the response to the COVID-19 crisis is any indication, there’s every reason to think that corporate-backed ownership of Major League Baseball will approach a coming period of disruption with intensified grabs for power and resources. These will almost certainly come at the expense of most major-league, and all minor-league and amateur, players, as well as the fans of baseball who have increasingly become an afterthought.

Naomi Klein gave the name to this process in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: disaster capitalism. As she puts it, disaster capitalism is typified by “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” It’s not just that the direction of baseball has been lashed to the mast of capitalism, it’s that the pandemic crisis and the resulting economic fallout has transitioned baseball’s strategy into its own shock doctrine.

Craig Goldstein wrote of the many ways in which baseball’s modus operandi has already been trending toward an orchestrated raid on public resources, with teams “bilk[ing] cities, counties, and states for tax breaks and public dollars for stadiums.” Now, this expropriation includes reallocating resources for minor-league clubs, which have historically facilitated revenue flows to local businesses and offered social and cultural attractions to residents of their towns, toward in-house player development. Given the massive profit of major-league clubs, and the relative cheapness of subsidizing minor-league affiliates, this move further removes baseball from its cultural and civic role as a public good in the name of what are, in light of baseball’s massive revenues over the past two decades, relatively insignificant profit margins.

If you polled owners and league representatives about whether or not they’re happy about the coronavirus crisis, you would of course get a unanimous response in the negative. Nobody, rich or poor, wanted a pandemic. Owners stand to take a hit from lost gate receipts and other game-day revenues. Given, however, that the profitability of major-league teams has doubled in the last fifteen years, and that even baseball’s poorest teams have a market valuation north of a billion dollars, baseball’s owners are better-positioned to absorb this loss than their players and other employees. While the party line from the Commissioner’s Office and teams has been one of panic over lost revenues, this tone obscures the fact that, even if teams lose money in the short term, acts of support for workers and goodwill toward suffering communities are not going to bankrupt the enterprise. 

[T]he all-encompassing horror of the Season is still a shock that no one can cope with easily. After all, just a week ago, everything was normal.

Disaster capitalism is not necessarily about fomenting catastrophe; it is about the immediate responses to such events that holds the profit motive above all. What we are seeing now is not so much a plan as a reflex: the profit motive has become so deeply ingrained that it’s tantamount to muscle memory. There’s no question that MLB’s owners are treating the COVID-19 crisis as a business opportunity. Take the example of two recent, entirely coordinated, moves. The pandemic ended all amateur baseball for the 2020 season, just when high schools and colleges were chugging toward the climax of their seasons. Using the inability to further scout players as a pretense, MLB pushed for a dramatic reduction of the amateur draft to five rounds, along with a hard cap of a $20,000 (previously $125,000) bonus for undrafted free agents. This dovetails perfectly with the plan, first floated last fall, to dramatically reduce the number of minor-league affiliates. All of this was put on the table in ad hoc negotiations with the MLBPA. In its desire to protect the service time of major-league players, the PA acceded to these demands. What shocks is not the plan for minor-league reduction itself–that type of cost-cutting efficiency has been the rule for years–but the exploitation of a crisis to both push through and justify this plan, alongside other long-term benefits for the league.

It’s impossible not to see this as an acceleration determined by the pandemic. Indeed, as R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports reported, many inside the industry “agreed that the league appears to be leveraging the situation to get its desired outcome” of minor-league reduction. Disaster capitalism is all about such opportunism: persuading the disadvantaged to accept further inequities in a moment of weakness and vulnerability.

In the one-two punch of reducing the draft and eliminating minor-league teams, MLB has, in the guise of a crisis response, set in motion structural changes that reduce the overhead of supporting minor-league teams and outsource the development of undrafted prospects to independent leagues, private academies, and college programs–none of which are on MLB teams’ books. This massive structural shift would likely have happened eventually, but the economic exigencies created by COVID-19 have not only made the changes more immediately profitable, they have made them rhetorically justifiable. In disaster, MLB has found the opportunity to enact sweeping changes that are not likely to be reversed for decades, if ever. 

They will have noticed the sulfur on the wind. They will have looked up at the increasingly strange sky, and seen the change there as an ill omen. (It is.)

Stepping back from these individual stories, it’s easy to see the actions of Major League Baseball in lockstep with the federal response to the pandemic, which has used an inadequate personal stimulus and a sham small-business-loan program to cover for massive bailouts, tax breaks, and regulatory rollbacks–all to the benefit of large corporations. It’s no surprise that President Donald Trump has been in conference calls with commissioners and owners from various leagues, and that a reported “Council to Reopen the Economy” contained a disproportionate number of professional sports owners and league executives, including NFL owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones and NBA owner Mark Cuban. 

The current administration clearly sees bringing back sports as a fast-track to a sense of normalcy and recovery. But this is also part of a larger series of moves to accomplish two broad goals: 1) projecting the appearance of a “reopened” economy, in spite of any guidance to the contrary by epidemiologists, while 2) using the crisis to further immiserate and disempower those already suffering from the massive wealth inequality that pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic.  

The big questions are those of economic and social sustainability: While MLB and its defenders will lean on the arguments that “it’s just business” and “ownership has a duty to maximize profit,” an increased climate of destruction may eventually accelerate the contradictions in this business-at-all-costs stance. Baseball may be able to weather the storm of COVID-19 by shoring up mechanisms for short-term profitability. But what about when the next disaster comes, whether it be another pandemic or some other calamity? Perhaps a climate catastrophe that paralyzes a portion of United States, political turmoil that leads to mass unrest, or an international conflict that threatens the safety of public events? Even the consequences of a good, old-fashioned labor dispute (which many are half-expecting following the 2021 season) may provide MLB impetus to reverse course from its relentless quest for profit, and imagine ways in which it can be, simultaneously, both a business and an outward-facing, community-minded enterprise–a public good.

Or, maybe this is the beginning of the end. In Jemisin’s novel, the Fifth Seasons destroy any idea of a “return to normalcy.” With fan bases increasingly apathetic, cable and RSN cash dying out in a streaming media ecosystem, potential young athletes seeking out sports with more of a future, and a sidelining of cultural influence beyond extremely limited, niche audiences, another shock to the sport could spell the end of MLB’s incredible winning streak of franchise profitability. 

There may come a season, sooner than we think, when a reduced schedule is the norm rather than an exception–seasons curtailed not by pandemic or labor strife but simply by the diminished profitability of the enterprise and the absence of new fans and investors to sustain it. Maybe teams will ride buses again; maybe divisions will be realigned and schedules reconfigured for regional proximity (perhaps the various limited-geography plans for the 2020 season are a taste of things to come). Maybe the game ends up looking something like the near-future version we see in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film, Interstellar, where the “New York Yankees” are a travelling team of mediocre players being chased off a small, rural ballpark by a choking dust storm. The only logical endpoint of baseball’s disaster capitalism is this: when the profits dry up, the capital will go elsewhere. Having exhausted any remaining public goodwill in its relentless self-interest, it’s difficult to imagine baseball having a Renaissance when the current bonanza ends.

Everything changes in a Season.

The lesson of Fifth Seasons, whether in fantasy fiction or real-life baseball: Even what we think of as nature’s laws can be altered. There’s no immutable right for Major League Baseball to exist. In the long sweep of human history, its connection to the natural cycle of the seasons is a construction that could be ripped away within a generation. If we foresee the 2020s as a period of crisis–centering on the intertwined threads of labor unrest, climate catastrophe, global health crises, and economic shocks–we could easily imagine revenue streams slowing to a trickle, the player pool becoming even more sharply reduced, and the future fan base shrinking away into an insignificant niche. Each decision made according to the shock doctrine is a short-term loan against baseball’s future health, which, in spite of its recent profitability, has never appeared more precarious. 

While the steps MLB and its clubs are taking don’t quite amount to the overt pillaging of the public sector that Klein attributes to the Bush administration’s responses to Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, make no mistake: the same dynamic is at work. Major League Baseball is not responding to the pandemic in a way that endeavors to find solutions that benefit all stakeholders while remaining mindful of the sustainability and growth of the game. What is happening now is a loosely coordinated, opportunistic set of actions that has one broad net effect: to consolidate power and wealth, both now and in the future, in the hands of ownership interests. In its actions since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, MLB is signaling, clearly and unapologetically, its responses to the likely future shocks to come.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe