Why 2021 was such a pivotal year of loss and change in baseball


It was, in the final quarter of the horrible 2020, when it seemed as though society had finally succumbed to its own appetites and irresponsibility, that baseball was somehow being made an example of. So much loss could not be happenstance. Six Hall of Famers — signatures to their time and instrumental to the landscape of the modern, postwar game as we know it — died that year, five between early September (Lou Brock, 81) and late December (Phil Niekro, 81). Before them, in April, it was Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger, who died at 85. Over a nine-day period in October, while the Los Angeles Dodgers were winning the World Series of a truncated MLB season, Bob Gibson, 84, Whitey Ford, 91, and Joe Morgan, 77, all passed. Twenty days before Niekro, another pillar of his time, Dick Allen, died at age 78, too soon and incomplete, his deserved Hall of Fame induction routinely denied a man who loved a game that rarely, if ever, loved him back.

The year was merciless, and when it ended, baseball people did what most everyone does at the end of a brutal calendar year, they look to the new year for hope — and grace.

They did not find it. The new year did not relent. Tommy Lasorda died on Jan. 7 at age 93. Eleven days later, Don Sutton, 75, and four days after that, the towering Henry Aaron at age 86. More metaphorical than sinister, their passage served as a message being sent across the sport — for a game that relies on continuity, yesterday will no longer be tomorrow. It was a message dubiously heeded in real time by the people who run baseball. And through the combination, 2021 turned pivotal, beginning with those three Hall of Famers dying, and ending without a game at all, the owners imposing a lockout in response to its labor impasse. A door has closed.

Time is calling. One day during the summer, the MLB Network was on my television airing “The Cobra at Twilight,” the documentary of Pittsburgh Pirates great Dave Parker who won a World Series title with the Pirates in 1979 and then bashed his way to another with Oakland a decade later. When he played, the great “Parkway” was the epitome of carefree size and strength, vitality and dominance. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, the indomitable Cobra made 6-2, 200-pound Jim Rice look small when they shared the April 9, 1979 cover of “Sports Illustrated,” as reigning MVPs on top of the world.

Now, Parker is under attack, relentlessly, by the irreversible effects of Parkinson’s disease. “Thank goodness for my memories,” he says in the documentary. “My memories are all I have.” He wrote a memoir in 2021 with his co-author Dave Jordan, and did so with an urgency at once resigned and resolute. “If I didn’t do it now,” he told me, “I don’t know how much more time I would have to do it.”

Every year is a death, but this year felt accelerated, demarcating, a continuum toward the end of the game as it is now known. All of the generations must endure this ritual — and now it is today’s turn.

Elston Howard died in 1980, Billy Martin in 1989. Mickey Mantle died in 1995, Joe DiMaggio in 1999, but there was always some prominent, living piece of the old New York Yankees dynasty that took it back to the beginning, to Babe Ruth and 1920 — until Whitey Ford died. Until then, the chain had been unbroken: Ruth played with Lou Gehrig, who played with Joe DiMaggio, who played with Mickey Mantle, Whitey and Yogi Berra. Yogi was always there, and when he died in 2015, there was still Whitey. The Chairman of the Board was going to last forever. He died at 91.

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were the originals, but Lasorda was the cement, permanently severing Los Angeles from Brooklyn and giving the Dodgers their lasting West Coast movie star identity. Frank Sinatra might be sitting in Tommy’s office pregame. The Dodgers were epitomized by Tommy as the celebrity, glamour baseball team — to this day, you never know which Hollywood bright light will show up in the dugout wearing a field pass.

In 2020, the twin passing of Brock and Gibson signaled another loss to history. Two more greats of the St. Louis Cardinals 1960s dynasty were gone, a fading of the institutional memory of the civil rights era of baseball when the game had integrated the country, and the questions that would become policy and protest issues — housing, redlining, access, opportunity — were first manifest in the integration of baseball. In today’s time, when baseball players are virtually nonexistent in the social discourse, it is easy to forget that the game was the first major American institution to confront integration on a national scale. Aaron’s death silenced another living voice of that time.

Henry was the conscience of the game, and in a sense, of America. He kept both of them honest, in deference to and reverence of him. Kindness to him assuaged a guilty public that believed time had reconciled what they’d done to him. The game portrayed him as dignified, the game’s quiet gentleman — but behind the eyes was a man who knew the game and his country better than they knew themselves. That dignity may have suggested that Henry Aaron could be underestimated, but he could not. America told Black people to not ask for handouts, to pull themselves up, to show achievement through industry and hard work. And when Henry did all that his nation asked, his family needed FBI protection from so many of them. His genuine contentment with his life over the last quarter century confirmed a certain level of closure. He could rest, while still seeing clearly through America. His ability to do both — not be fooled while authentically loving his life and those around him — made the life of Henry Aaron an unqualified triumph. The remaining void is cavernous.

For decades, Henry was the last member of the Negro League to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as an MLB player, and now Willie Mays holds the title of the last living member of that lineage that dates back to 1920, in that Kansas City YMCA where the Negro Leagues were formed. Mays turned 90 on May 6, and he is the final living Hall of Famer who began his career in the Black Leagues, as they were once called. There is, as the great, 101-year-old Roger Angell once wrote, a web of the game, and these departing elders are rapidly closing the chapter on the primary source, the original voice, the ones who were there. With that, the center changes. The Yankees will still be the Yankees, but their elder statesman is now Reggie Jackson, 75 years old himself, and the living members of the Steinbrenner dynasties. Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, too, embodies this. Like Reggie, Baker is now an elder, heir to Aaron. Dusty played with Henry — was in the on-deck circle when Aaron hit home run 715 — he was also briefly teammates with Satchel Paige in 1968, when the Braves signed the 62-year-old pitcher so he could accrue pension time. The 1970s are quickly becoming the game’s patriarch.

The Baseball Writers Association of America started 2021 by not electing a single player to the Hall of Fame. It is not out of the question that this round of voting may result in a second straight shutout — one that would take Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens off the ballot, and keep David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez AND their 1,237 combined home runs out of the Hall on their first try. It is a cynical, selfish world, an America that has lost itself. The reflex from swaths of the baseball fandom, which at times has suggested the remedy for sins of the steroid era is to take away the votes from Hall voters, is very on brand for a country that acts as a democracy in name only. People demand accountability, rage that the rich and powerful get away with everything — until accountability gets uncomfortable. A Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens, Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez is one of the terrible but appropriate consequences of what accountability can look like.

The sport courted disaster with its lack of oversight and leadership — and has precisely that. The players asked for it by trading their reputations for money — thinking they could talk their way into redemption while keeping the money. The fans asked for it by looking out for their own interest — steroid use was just another chant to throw at the opposing team’s best players. MLB not only paid no financial price for its greatest scandal but monetized it. The price, for now, is a Hall of Fame without Barry Bonds — the Mona Lisa banned from The Louvre. It was inevitable that the Hall of Fame ballot would come to this, the unworkable reality that a Hall of Fame might not include Bonds. And Roger Clemens. And A-Rod. The BBWAA is the simple target, but the elders we revered — Aaron, Morgan, Jim Rice — did not want steroid users in their club, either. The reality of this could never be so easily washed away by blaming the writers, but it feels like a convenient, easy fix. It’s why the leaders of the sport punted its responsibility to them. The bill for the past has come due.

In this severing, from the old to the new, the sport and its BBWAA voters seem faced with a choice: to impose a life sentence on the steroid era, or to grant parole. The former makes a habit of rejection — of Bonds and his time, and for the next half-decade or so, election years with no inductees will be commonplace. But this road comes with the optimism that the game will accept this Black Sox damnation by relying on the induction of a future generation years from now to redeem it. Bonds, A-Rod and Clemens, the Rushmores of their time, will be overcome, eventually, by the Bryce Harpers, Juan Sotos and Mookie Betts and, as then-MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti said of the Pete Rose scandal, the institution will rely on its resilience, and this too, shall pass.

The second option, parole, is to be convinced that it is unacceptable for steroid-era players to not be enshrined. These players were too good and meant too much to not be inducted. It is to know that no Hall of Fame in sports is more particular about its induction hierarchy than baseball, and the induction of Barry Bonds, the greatest player of his time, as a tenth ballot Hall of Famer, serves as sufficient humiliation and punishment. The same is true for Clemens, who once — back when his first-ballot induction was the surest bet in town — laughed with Reggie Jackson in the Yankees clubhouse one day in training about the difference between them (no doubt Hall of Famers) and everybody else.

When the game resumes, it likely will appear unrecognizable from its old self — designated hitters in both leagues, and perhaps even the most radical of changes: an expansion of playoffs that will turn the postseason into a tournament and throw into question the necessity of a 162-game season. These changes and grievances have wafted in the air for years, grist for a cautious and conservative sport too tied to its past to seriously entertain the radical. Now, the combinations of time and loss and conflict appear to have made the once-radical — 14 of 30 teams could soon make the playoffs and baseball may have a Hall of Fame without its greatest contemporary players — now seem reasonable. As the sport reinvents and leagues are pressured to actually give a damn about climate change, radical realignment — regional conferences to replace the American and National Leagues — may not be far away.

It was a year when the inevitable arrived. Baseball will proceed without the comfort of many of the elders of the past we had always leaned upon: the Lasordas and Suttons, Kalines and Aarons who connected the game to its roots and us to our own family and times long gone. The sport today now possesses something of a blank slate, and freed from its traditions, an opportunity. As the generations fade, those who remember the game as it had been known must now watch baseball for a different reason: to witness what it will become.

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