Sunday, July 26, 2020

It's Over, We're Cyberpunk Now: A Review of Baseball's Opening Weekend

Heading into Spring Training, baseball had been afflicted by the low-grade malaise that has been seeping into the sport for the past few years: there was the lingering Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, questions about the juiced ball that baseball handled with a series of increasingly half-hearted denials and obfuscations, and an increasingly bold stance by owners that they didn’t get into the baseball business to pay baseball players that signals impending labor strife. But it is also clear that in a year that saw baseball heading into a season that was going to be defined by reporters repeatedly asking Astros players "did you bang the cans," that all of these concerns are muted by the possibility that Major League Baseball will literally kill someone.

Baseball careened into its pandemic restart plan with the panicked disorganization of a retreating army. As labor negotiations roiled into bitterness between players and owners, plans to play in Arizona and Florida fell by the wayside as Covid cases spiked in those states, and the testing regime immediately fell into delays that made it impossible to tell quickly and decisively if anyone was infected before they had the opportunity to spread disease around the stadium, I became increasingly convinced that this was all a giant ass-covering exercise; this way, MLB could claim that they tried before folding the season as the incompetent reset plans continued to lurch forward so haphazardly that it would be impossible to play without marinating the entire league in a virus stew.

But here we are. Baseball has returned, barreling through the clusterfucks and logistical nightmares with the confidence of a person drunk enough to try some amateur bear wrestling in the wild. In this week alone, the Canadian government denied permission for the Blue Jays to play in Toronto leaving them scrambling to secure a home field days before opening day, Nationals superstar Juan Soto tested positive just hours before a game but allowing teammates near him to still play; MLB is still ramming bizarre rule changes into a season that has already seen a universal DH and a mind-meltingly stupid rule to start extra innings with a runner on second-- minutes before the opening pitch, MLB announced an expanded playoff format as part of the sport and America's dominant fuck it we'll do it live ethos.

It is clear that attempting to play organized baseball, with the travel, infrastructure and close contact required by a modern baseball operation is reckless and stupid, and in a functioning country the entire thing would be completely shut down.  Instead, they brought baseball back, crammed the telecasts with triumphant commercials about persevering over a disease that is in fact bat-flipping in triumph at the American medical establishment, and lauded by announcers as something America needs.  It is insane to witness; I do not know why-- possibly because it is bracing to watch professional sports leagues stage grandiose plans for safety theater and execute them as if you or I or your neighbor who has strong opinions about brands of weedwhacking equipment were put in charge of the D-Day invasion-- but watching professional sports leagues attempt to play under these circumstances with increasingly ludicrous fake safety measures makes me feel completely unmoored from reality.  We absolutely do not need any of this.  We don't need Bubbles.  We don't need Alternate Sites.  We do not need to drive a steamroller over people so I can watch Jason Heyward roll over a slow grounder to the second baseman.

I watched like fifteen hours of baseball this weekend.


The biggest and most notable thing is the lack of fans, of baseball played in empty stadiums.  The broadcasts tried several ways to get around this.  Teams are blaring low-level crowd noise over the sound system.  Some set up cardboard cutouts of fans as a sort of comforting simulacrum of the televised baseball experience instead of looking at row after row of cold, empty seats and thinking oh shit there's a plague what the hell are we doing.  I like the cardboard fans.  They're goofy and charming.  The Dodgers had them set up for the game I watched late Thursday night, and I was disappointed they did not set up a cardboard Larry King to emulate what I think is one of the greatest camera shots in the history of televised baseball:

On Saturday's Fox telecasts, the production crew decided to go in another direction and remind us that we are all living in a cyberpunk dystopia.  Fox digitally inserted fans into the stadium using computer graphics from an early generation of console video games and taunted viewers with disturbing pixelated blobs waving disconnected limbs around and appearing and disappearing like ghoulish specters.  There were no fans behind the plate in the Cubs game I watched, but a player would hit a foul ball and the camera would pan into a crowd of weightless cub-shirted dolls, their limbs undulating like horror movie versions of inflatable car lot dancers.  It is an abomination.

The aesthetic of pandemic-era television is the grainy, pixelated Zoom quality of video images, and it is precisely the degradation of television from high-definition to blurry glitches that gives everything a feeling of cyberpunk dystopia.  I believe this is because this is how television and communications looked in every 1980s and 1990s cyberpunk dystopia movie.  Every day on our screens we see an entertainment apparatus that will not stop for anything including a pile of bodies continue to go through the motions with the same form and content but now these programs look exactly like how grainy video calls looked in Total Recall.  There is a television on at all times outside of my office, and every morning I see the same chipper morning news people grinning through elaborate haircuts and doing their inane post-human banter no longer in a studio but in their homes, in networks of flickering rumpus rooms, and the idea of someone sitting at home staring into a computer and vacuously chuckle-talking to Keith about his Summer Movie Faves has been consistently making my blood run cold.

Sports television has hewed to this aesthetic.  Networks have added teleconferenced announcers superimposed over game action nervously tripping over each other and disembodied crowd sounds echoing through eerie shots of abandoned stadiums but they have tried to maintain the familiar grammar of a sports broadcast.  It is the psychosis of the NFL draft but now Mel Kiper looks like a 1990s CD Rom Video Game Guy who sells weapon upgrades.  In my head, I hear Joe Buck narrating the fall of the American government from various regional warlord factions in his same lilting down low it's three and two cadence while John Smoltz interrupts to add in that it's also a rough night for Giants hitters as Kershaw's looking sharp. 

The aesthetics of American Cyberpunk as depicted on sports television

And yet, despite all of the harrowing dread, baseball is still baseball.  The pitch still thumps into the catcher's glove.  The ball still cracks off of bats.  Every few minutes, a large person you have never heard of named Tanner Traegarten or Chance Hacklebourg comes in to throw 98.  The umpires still communicate in their indecipherable grunt-argots.  For some reason, everyone is still spitting and grabbing at their extremities at all times, which is comforting in baseball and would give me an anxiety attack if I saw someone do it on a sidewalk. It took about 15 minutes of me settling in to watch my first Cubs game to go from marveling at the ludicrousness and recklessness of the entire enterprise to start worrying about their ramshackle bullpen consisting entirely of fictional guys from the famous Japanese Nintendo game graphic.

In the midst of all of this, the Cubs decided to launch their own television network.  And because the Cubs are owned by the eternally grasping Ricketts family, it naturally involved an important Business Deal that threatened to leave Comcast customers, the main carrier of all Chicago area cable subscribers, unable to watch the game until they came to a last minute agreement on opening day.  The Marquee Network exists to show nothing but Cubs content, and I have occasionally been thinking about what they have been airing for the past several months as the entire reason for its existence has been swallowed up by the pandemic.  For the past few days, since the Marquee Network has loomed large in my brain, I have been unable to stop thinking about them airing a Ryan Dempster talk show that is just a 1990s talk show where Dempster wears an enormous boxy suit and painted tie, talks to Sissy Spacek and Antonio Alfonseca, and everyone involved is constantly housing and spitting sunflower seeds everywhere.  

Baseball has returned with a sense of anxious joy and horror, something that should not be happening at all but is, and since I am powerless to stop it I might as well see if Javy Baez can knock some dingers.  It exists, like the return of all entertainment and amusement parks and throngs of people hosing each other down with particles in bars, an abomination, an indictment of a government and society unwilling to protect itself from annihilation, and it is also the comfort of knowing that on a summer day you can turn on the radio and hear Ron Coomer talking about how Kris Bryant is really looking for something he drive here the same way you always can.  And if this contradictory state of affairs seems untenable, an impossible way to reconcile enjoying something that should not really exist, there is nothing I can tell you that you can't already know from watching college football in normal times.

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