A Baseball Carol with apologies to Charles Dickens

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.”—Charles Dickens, introduction to A Christmas Carol.

“What he said.”—Laura Peebles

Rob Manfred left the party early. Opening Day was the next day, and he would be expected to speak. He mentally rehearsed what he would say: “Baseball has never been more financially healthy, we’re looking forward to a competitive season ahead of us this year, etc.”

When he approached his front door, he was taken aback – the decorative door knocker seemed to have mutated into the stern visage of long-deceased Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. “Wow,” he thought, “What was in that eggnog?” He shook his head and the vision vanished. Walking into the darkened house, he thought he heard a voice calling “Robert Manfred!” Startled, he flipped the lights on—all of them. Silence. He quickly turned and locked the door behind him, double-checking the security settings. Deciding that a hot beverage before bed might be advisable, he headed toward the kitchen. Grabbing a cup of water and heading to the microwave, he was startled to see Landis’s face in the black glass front instead of his own reflection. The house lights flickered and the apparition disappeared. He shrugged, made tea and took the mug upstairs to his bedroom.

Usually when he was home alone he would leave the bedroom door open in case he got up during the night, but he felt better closing it – and locking it. As he sat down to drink his tea, he heard the voice again, except this time it seemed to be right outside the door. “Robert Manfred!” His hand shaking, he put the mug down. The lights flickered; the door slammed open – which seemed impossible since he has locked it from the inside. The figure who stood before him was unmistakable despite his semi-transparency – the stern visage, the shock of white hair, and the buttoned black coat – this could only be the ghost of Commissioner Landis.

“Are you . . . are you Commissioner Landis?” Manfred gasped.

“One and the same. I have always watched the state of baseball from the afterlife. Normally I do not walk abroad among the living, but I have received special permission to visit you, in the best interests of the game.”

“I don’t understand. Am I not acting in the best interests of the game? Baseball has never been more financially lucrative! The value of the franchises increase every year! Look at our media and gambling contracts!”

“Oh, shortsighted man! Baseball is not just about the bottom line! Have you not noticed the declining attendance, the interminable pitching changes, the aging fan base? Have you forgotten, or did you ever know, that baseball is supposed to be fun? And gambling‽ Have you learned nothing from the past? Yes, there will always be gambling on sports, but have you never heard the saying ‘lie down with dogs, get up with fleas?’ You must know that a close association with gambling will eventually ruin baseball as a true sport.”

“But our contracts are so profitable! We do have controls to prevent cheating, you know!”

Landis sighed. “What controls you have haven’t worked before now—and I’ve got a dented trash can and a few trashed reputations to prove it!”

Landis continued, “Since you do not have the spirit of baseball in your heart, you must seek it in the hearts of others. You will be visited by three spirits. The first will appear when the clock strikes one. The second when the clock strikes two. The third will come in its own time. Pay heed to their words and what they show you—your redemption, and Major League Baseball’s redemption, depend on it.”

With that, he rose, left the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Manfred shook his head—that door was designed not to slam. He looked around—everything else looked just as it had been. Out loud to no one in particular, he said, “Eggnog. Never, ever again.” He climbed into bed; but just in case, he pulled the covers over his head.

Manfred slept, but not deeply, so when he heard a clock chime one he sat upright in bed. First, he didn’t own a chiming clock. Second, a light gleamed from under his bedroom door—and he knew he’d turned off the lights before retiring.

The door swung open and a figure became clear in the light emanating from the baseball bat in his hand. The rotund figure on improbably spindly legs spoke, “Get up, Manfred, old boy! It’s game day, and we’ve got games to see! I’m Baseball Past, although you might recall I made quite a name for myself when I walked the earth!”

“Ahh, hi! Umm, yes, you do remind me of a certain player. Where are we off to? Wait, I’m in my pajamas!”

“Don’t worry about your pajamas, we’ll be invisible. We’re going to visit baseball’s glorious past! Grab this bat!”

Manfred, for a change, didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the bat as they walked through the bedroom door—and into daylight. They found themselves standing in the upper deck of a stadium. Beneath them were thousands of fans focused intently on the game before them. Based on the style of dress, the era was the 1920’s.

“Where are we?” asked Manfred. “And when are we?”

“Griffith Stadium! Game Seven of the 1924 World Series. A bit before your time,” responded Baseball Past.

“Look at all those fans!” Manfred marveled. “This must have been a very profitable game for the owners!”

“Profit? Well, certainly. But that’s not why the fans are here—they’re here to cheer on their team. Surely you at least recognize the pitcher on the mound?”

“Well, I think I may have seen his picture somewhere.”

“Just a picture? Why, that’s The Big Train, Walter Johnson! The Senators certainly wouldn’t win this Series without him!” Just then, the batter lifted a fly ball to left, which was caught to end the inning. The crowd cheered as Johnson left the mound.

“The score is tied 3-3, middle of the 12th,” Baseball Past spoke. “I’ll give away the ending—the Senators win it in the bottom of the 12th. But what do you notice about the fans?”

“Well, I notice they’re all wearing hats, not baseball caps. I guess no one has thought yet about selling team caps to the fans.”

“Well, sure, but didn’t you notice that there’s not a dark face in the crowd?”

“Oh, I guess there wouldn’t have been then. There wasn’t any mixing on the field, either.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Ol’ Landis, he didn’t like it one bit, but as soon as the season was over, the players would barnstorm, all colors, all nations. Come on, grab the bat and let’s see one of those games!”

They found themselves once more in the top row of a stadium. The fans were segregated, but both sections were filled with fans rooting for the team that matched their skin color. Watching the play for a few minutes, it appeared the teams were reasonably well matched.

“This looks like a major league stadium,” Manfred remarked.

“Oh, yes, it’s a major league stadium—we’re in St. Louis after the 1921 regular season. That’s the St. Louis Giants and, well, a lot of the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular players. We played the Negro League teams after the season, fair and square. Like I said, Landis didn’t like it, but we needed the money, liked the competition, so we did it anyway.”

“Hmm. Didn’t know about that. I thought integrated play started in 1947.”

“Well, there’s a lot that happened in baseball that’s not necessarily in the major leagues’ official records. Sometimes, you need to look a little harder. Landis may have cleaned up the gambling, but he sure made it hard on the players. Anyway, you’ve seen a bit of baseball history, back when baseball was the number one sport in the land. Give some thought to how that could happen again. Now, let’s get you back to bed—you need to be ready for Opening Day!”

Manfred crawled back into bed. He reawakened to the chime of two (where was that clock, anyway‽). He opened one eye, then sat bolt upright, staring at a new apparition in his bedroom. A middle-aged Black gentleman, slightly transparent but nattily dressed from wingtips to hat, smiled at him from beside his chair. He had a walking stick, but it appeared to be more for style than support.

“Up and at ‘em now, Mr. Commissioner! I’m Baseball Present, and we’ve got places to go and things to see!”

“Umm, let me guess. We’ll be invisible, right?  Well, do you mind if I grab my dressing gown anyway? I feel peculiar touring the world in my pajamas.”

“Don’t bother me either way—I’ve seen better and worse in my time.”

“Speaking of time, what is your time? I mean in baseball,” Manfred said as he grabbed his robe.

“Well, strictly speaking, I cover most of the last century and some of the current one. But I know the history—all the way back, right up to today. Grab my stick and let’s go see some current baseball history. Just recent history—before that pandemic messed up everything.”

Manfred grabbed the stick and they found themselves in front of a large glass case protecting a trophy. “And this is?“ said Baseball Present.

“Well, of course I know what this is! It’s the Commissioner’s Trophy—for winning the World Series!”

“I seem to recall that you referred to it as a ‘piece of metal.’” Baseball Present’s twinkle vanished from his eye, gazing sternly at Manfred.

“Um, yes, yes I did. I admit that was a bad idea. I didn’t understand the symbolism, what this stands for in the eyes of the players and fans.”

“But you do understand now?”

“Yes—I think I’ve learned that lesson.”

“Good!  Now, let’s see the folks who make this all possible!”

“The owners? The players?”

“No, no, the fans! Oh, sure, players would still play, but without the support of the fans, they’d just be playing on sandlots. And the owners? Well, they would own something else.”

Manfred grabbed the walking stick again and they found themselves on a raised platform, looking out at a sea of thousands of red-clad fans. “Whatever else you think about when you think about baseball, remember that it’s these folks, the fans, who pay your salary. They won’t support their teams, the players, the owners . . and yes, you, unless baseball is worth their time and money. There will always be baseball, but if Major League Baseball doesn’t look lively those fans will be looking for baseball with the Savannah Bananas and the Portland Pickles.”

Manfred looked out at the throngs. He had to admit he’d never looked at fans like that. Would they leave MLB for independent baseball? He shivered, even though he wasn’t cold. Or maybe it was just the feeling of being in front of a crowd in his bathrobe.

“Look at the joy on their faces celebrating their team’s World Series victory. That’s what baseball is about—joy, fun, camaraderie, sportsmanship, community. Without those, well, I don’t know what it would be, but it wouldn’t be baseball as we know it. You give some thought to that next time you’re thinking.

Anyway, I’ve given you enough food for thought—let’s get you back to bed.”

Manfred threw his robe on the bed. He had a feeling he’d need it again. He stared at the ceiling. “Independents? He’d heard that their games were fast and entertaining. Would the fans really go there? Joy? Fun? How did those fit with the business of baseball?” He fell into a troubled sleep.

Manfred awoke. A large, dark object blocked the light from the bathroom. Manfred sat up and asked the shape, “Are you Baseball Yet-to-Come?” Even in the dim light, the shape appeared to nod. As Manfred’s eyes adjusted he determined that it had a large round head, perhaps a baseball, covered by a black shroud that almost brushed the floor. A single white-gloved hand emerged from the shroud and pointed toward the bedroom door. Without thinking, Manfred opened the door . . .and emerged into a large darkened room.

There were rows of tables before him arranged in stadium seating style, so he could see all the activity before him from his place in the back row. Each person was intently watching their two screens. Many of them were wearing t-shirts showing commercial sponsors, but none were wearing any baseball team logos, which Manfred thought odd. At first glance, it appeared that a baseball game was being shown on each left screen, with the right screen showing an array of numbers. Yet-to-Come gestured for Manfred to take the empty seat at the back of the room.

Once he sat down, he realized that the game was not a live game, it was a computer-generated reproduction, albeit a very good one. He looked in vain for a team name on the screen, but the only identifying title was “GamerCo simulation #852, Team A and Team B.” He turned back to ask questions, but the white hand directed him to a sheet on the desk in front of the screens.

“Welcome to GamerCo! The game you see on your screen is generated using simulacra of former major league players. Once they have accumulated sufficient statistics (typically two to four years), they sell their data to GamerCo and retire from the game. The players, managers, stadium layout, and umpires in each game are chosen at random from GamerCo’s extensive archives. This allows you a maximum variety of wagers. The statistics for each player, manager, and umpire are available by clicking on their image. The available wagers, and the constantly updated odds, are on your right screen.”

The player at bat hit a home run. Cheers and groans sounded through the room, depending on each gamer’s bets. The gamer sitting next to him grumbled “Only 398 feet. I needed 400 feet for the payoff.”

Manfred looked at Baseball Yet-to-Come. “Are these the fans? Just gamblers with no team loyalty? Show me a real baseball game!”

Baseball Yet-to-Come raised its right hand . . .

They were standing on the concourse of a major league baseball stadium. The crowd—well, think of a getaway day game in Miami. The upper levels of the field had been covered with tarps advertising the products likely to appeal to the remaining live and broadcast audience: Viagra, mobility scooters, burial insurance.

A young Hispanic player stepped up to the plate and placed a perfect bunt up the third base line. By the time the startled pitcher fielded the ball, the runner was safe at first. A few fans applauded the hit, but most either shook their heads or looked at their GamerDirect devices.

Manfred spoke, “Good play!” Baseball Yet-to-Come pointed to the first base coach, who was admonishing the player: “That may be how you played before you got here, but bunt hits lower your average exit velocity stats and therefore your simulacra value. We’ve got a lot invested in you, and we want to maximize our share of your value at sale. So no more bunting.” The player nodded. Manfred was not surprised to see that even with the player’s speed and an inexperienced pitcher, he wasn’t taking much of a lead. “Steals are out of style, right?” Baseball Yet-to-Come n

Manfred turned and faced Baseball Yet-to-Come. “Is this what’s left of the game‽ Isn’t there somewhere where the game is played with passion and enthusiasm and not just statistics? Where fans root for their team, not just bet on the players?”

Baseball Yet-to-Come raised its right hand . . .

And they were standing on yet another concourse in another stadium. Manfred knew from the advertising signs that they were in a Spanish-speaking country. A game was underway. The stadium was packed with families in the colors of their respective teams. Competing bands played at either end of the stadium seating. Children chased foul balls. Fans waved flags and blew horns. He noticed a few former major leaguers’ names in the lineups—and on the fans’ jerseys.

When a mound conference was taking too long, the home plate umpire jogged out to break it up, and Manfred noticed her braids bouncing behind her. He overhead a fan saying, “That’s Mama Bear. Fair but tough. You don’t want to get on her bad side. You should have seen her the last time she had to break up a fight!”

Manfred looked at the scoreboard again. Bottom of the ninth, one out, game tied. The batter hit a liner into the gap, the fielder charged and threw home, but the runner from second beat the throw by a hair. “Safe!” the umpire signaled and the stadium erupted. The cacophony of horns and cheering, the joy of the fans, washed over Manfred like a wave.

He turned to Baseball Yet-to-Come. “YES! This is what I want! It will not be easy, but I am up to it! I will address pace of play! I will separate the gambling! I will develop younger fans! Take me home—there is work to be done, and I am now the man to get the ball rolling!”

Baseball Yet-to-Come raised its right hand . . .

And Manfred found himself in his bedroom, alone. “Well, I’m going to need a good night’s sleep ahead of tomorrow,” so he climbed into bed.

Bright and early his phone woke him with “Take me out to the Ballgame.” Hmm, he thought—wonder which one of them re-programmed my phone? Could have been Baseball Past or Present—both of them did their share of pranks in their day. He looked at the blue suit he had picked out for Opening Day. Nope—way too conservative. Where’s that #1 Commish jersey my friends got me? That would be perfect to set the new tone for the new me.

As he was ready to walk out the front door, he decided he should have a cap to go with the jersey. Last year’s World Series winner? Of course—now, where is it? Just before leaving the house, he checked the mirror to be sure the cap was on straight. For a second, he thought he saw Commissioner Landis in the reflection—with a small smile on his lips.

Manfred smiled, closed and locked the door, and headed out with the best interests of baseball foremost in his mind—and heart.



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