Baseball as Panopticon

The Mariners will be playing their home games elsewhere to begin the season. (via eggrole)

Already COVID-19 has changed our lives in unprecedented ways, and there is no telling where we’re headed. And while the likelihood of Major League Baseball wiping away its whole slate is low, if only for economic reasons, American baseball will almost certainly be affected.

In Korea, where the virus has already struck hard, KBO has cancelled spring training entirely. In Japan, spring training continues, but teams play in empty stadiums. The NBA has told suspended its season, and Italian sports already have become crowdless. MLB, though, has so far only taken small measures. Players are not to take pens from fans to sign autographs, and media members have been asked to avoid team facilities if they have recently visited high-risk areas. They’ve been barred from clubhouses, and the kind of intimate coverage we’re accustomed to may not be available this season.

But as the virus spreads, and government bodies begin issuing warnings to avoid or cancel large gatherings, there is a real chance MLB might take drastic action. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has banned gathering of larger than 250 people, and there’s a real chance more widespread government action could tie baseball’s hands before MLB can make any decision of its  own. Or perhaps that’s what baseball wants — to have crowdless ballgames and not be itself responsible.  

There is a precedent for crowdless baseball. In April 2015, in the wake of the killing of Freddie Gray, the Orioles hosted the White Sox with no one in attendance. That game could provide a preview of what is to come—baseball with no crowds, no cheering, no ambient noise save the streets beyond the stadium and the voices of players and announcers. One broadcast’s home run call could be heard on another. Sirens wailed in the distance. Before first pitch Adam Eaton joked of “taking the crowd out of the game entirely,” and Caleb Joseph gave out imaginary high-fives to empty seats, but when the game began the scene became eerie. Eaton describes playing as if “half-asleep.” And now, after seemingly finding ourselves in some kind of waking nightmare, we as baseball fans might have this game as our new normal. 

When I read of the KBO and NPB changes due to coronavirus, I realized that I was more mentally prepared for the prospect of my own death than the loss of baseball. The consequences in the major leagues alone could be severe. The cost of crowdless baseball in Baltimore for just a single day was estimated at almost a million dollars, with $600,000 coming in ticket sales.

Given the economic incentives, MLB will almost certainly try to keep parks open at all costs. But the situation could change rapidly. Imagine even a single death linked to a crowded MLB game, or news of several fans in a sold-out crowd becoming hospitalized. Last year we saw teams begin to take seriously the risk of death and severe injury from foul balls, which, compared to coronavirus, is a much less significant issue.  And despite shrinking attendance, MLB revenues are at all-time highs largely through RSN and MLB.tv viewership. There are more abstract costs too. What of the Dodgers’ push for Mookie Betts? In 50 years, will Dodgers fans remember this season as just another lost chance? 

Baseball is my rock. I am not a believer. I am not a person of faith. But what I do know: the weather will warm and grown men with bad haircuts will smack the leather and stride across the grass in tight pants. From April to October, baseball is a kindly numbing background noise. Making dinner, I am chopping onions and the crowd roars as a Phillies batter is announced. I have no attachment to the Phillies, this player, or the particulars of the game itself. But this game happens to be happening now, and there is the crowd, and the crack of the bat, a sonic ritual. So the odds are this will all still be available, but it won’t be the same. Imagine the closeup on a pitcher’s face, full-count, bases juiced, then the closeup on the batter, the catcher’s signs, the pitcher shakes it off—then a wide shot of the diamond and a glimpse of empty seats. This is baseball on mute. 

And there is the experience of baseball in person, which this year might be lost. As a recent transplant to the Mid-Atlantic, I have had the joy of experiencing a number of ballparks for the first time. Camden Yards, where I watched Felix Hernandez’ second-to-last Mariners start and screamed, hoarse and broken-hearted, “We love you!” after he’d given up a first-inning homer, and watched as he turned to scan my section to find the shout’s source; where, because attendance was so poor, the usher insisted my partner and I sit in the fourth row despite buying cheaper seats, and where Dee Gordon, after slapping a single into outfield, made eye contact with me in my Griffey jersey and pounded his chest. Or Nationals Park, where we watched the Dodgers wallop the Nationals in scorching heat, our plastic seats white hot as yet another Will Smith dinger announced what seemed to be inevitable superstardom, where we drank terrible local micros in a sweaty fugue as, magically, some vintage Kershaw dominated a team that was, come October, going to flip the script in dramatic fashion. 

Even better, our two games at PeoplesBank Park in York, home of the Atlantic League Revolution, where we witnessed one of the first games to use a robot ump. We watched a player bark at the ump, who in turn pointed up at a camera that called the balls and strikes. The player began shouting, pointing at the camera, and his manager dragged him off the field, only to charge out of the dugout and kick dirt into the air. Later, the Revolution hit a home run and a man in colonial attire in the lawn seating section discharged a cannon.

Or our game in Hagerstown, where the Suns have played since the 1980s but is scheduled to lose its team to minor league cuts. The ballpark was in dire shape and that gave it all the more charm: bullpens in chain-link cages, locker rooms in portables, a green grandstand circa the turn of the of 20th century that rose with chipped paint. The Suns hosted the Mariners-affiliated West Virginia Power and we bought cheap seats and made our way to the empty section behind home plate, where we sat behind a row of scouts in Mariners attire. Julio Rodriguez hit a homer, went 4-for-5. He was younger than everyone else and also clearly the best player. It seemed a preview of something special. And I watched the scouts work radar guns, watched laptops screens on their laps fill with charts and data whose meaning alluded me. It was overcast and the air was thick and hot. I drank a $4 tall boy, felt the full ripeness of summer.

And in place of all this…we find ourselves in the panopticon. There is the stadium as a site of contagion. We are encouraged to practice “social distancing,” and assume a gap of six feet from others. And yet we assemble in our workplaces, grocery stores, auditoriums with only the precaution of hand sanitizer. If the worst happens, we are to voluntarily quarantine ourselves (as of writing, nearly three thousand people have self-isolated in New York). In the Seattle Times, a World Health Organization official says that “you want the population to become your surveillance system.” This, he says, is how we as a society battle contagion without authoritarian quarantine measures. Suddenly we find ourselves in Bentham’s panopticon: a circular prison with small chambers that line a large atrium. At its center is a tower from which a single observer may watch the prisoners. “It reverses the principle of the dungeon,” Foucault says in Discipline and Punish.

“Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap,” he writes, and this visibility applied too to the public, as “any member of society will have the right to come and see with his own eyes how the schools, hospitals, factories, prisons function.” The function of the panopticon as prison transcends any building as the site of imprisonment, order, and surveillance. Reversed in the architecture itself, these concepts expand out into society. And so…on the subway, a man coughs and each rider assumes the worst. In Seattle, bus riders are asked to call a hotline if they observe “an unsanitary condition” so that the bus may be pulled out of service for sanitation. At the bar, the bartenders ask whether you wish to start a tab, and you notice the bags under their eyes as you consider that you are about to hand them your credit card. The panopticon is no longer just what Foucault calls “a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole” but the city itself.

18th century panopticism, Foucault says, came as a radical departure from the medieval plague containment strategies that preceded it. He describes an intricate and absolute power structure of quarantined cities divided into precincts, each with a supervisor, divided into neighborhoods with their captains, in which families remained trapped in their homes. At the appointed time they would collect at a window and their symptoms could be observed and so it could be discerned “easily enough whether dead or sick are being concealed.”

This model of quarantine we might call Authoritarian. This is not unlike scenes described in Wuhan. And while China seems to have gotten ahead of the spread of COVID-19, we in the west have called those methods unacceptable. “What happened in Wuhan is not something you can actually do in Seattle,” says a University of Minnesota professor in the Seattle Times. In Italy, the prime minister begs no furbizia, or cleverness, to skirt lockdown. In The New York Times, the director of the Center for Allergies and Infectious Diseases says:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“I don’t think you want to have folks shutting down cities like in northern Italy. We are not at that level. That is a hot spot. Social distancing like in Seattle is the way to go. I’m not talking about locking down anything. There’s a big difference between voluntary social distancing and locking anything down.”

Our response to disease, then, is panoptical. It is voluntary. The means of containment and the exercise of power is executed by individuals. So on the one hand we are told mass-quarantine can’t work in the West because we value our freedoms, and yet on the other we are being told it isn’t necessary because exactly the opposite is true—we will obey. And this is perhaps more effective. The panopticon, Foucault says, “Makes it possible to draw up differences: among patients, to observe the symptoms of each individual, without the proximity of beds, the circulation of miasmas, the effects of contagion confusing the clinical tables.” Suddenly, we are ourselves the patients, the nurses, the doctors, and the crisis administrators. 

This means that in Seattle, where COVID-19’s spread seems to be worst, the government has asked at-risk groups to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. But since the outbreak was detected, the Sounders have played two home games, one with 40,000 fans and another with 30,000. The XFL’s Seattle Dragons played to a crowd of 20,000 and, later, a concession vendor tested positive for COVID-19. MLB, meanwhile, says it is in constant communication with the CDC and other sports leagues, but that games will proceed as normal. And yet, is that fair to the players? Especially those from teams visiting areas with widespread community infection? Or to ticket holders with no financial recourse?

If the Spanish Flu is any precedent, MLB will continue at full speed. By October of 1918, when Spanish Flu began to hit hard, many baseball leagues disbanded, including the Southern League and the Liberty League. The Pacific Coast League ended its slate even earlier, on July 14. And the major league season did end early, but because of World War I and not the Spanish Flu. In some cities, baseball was allowed only if tickets were free, but in others things continued as normal. The most extreme measure baseball took was to ban the spitball, but this was said to be perhaps more in the interest of raising offensive production than preventing the spread of germs. During the Spanish Flu epidemic, baseball suffered a number of losses of writers and minor leaguers, but no players. But other sports were not so unaffected. The 1919 Stanley Cup Final ended in a tie after three players collapsed in overtime with severe fevers. One died. 

MLB has two options, both panoptical. It might continue as normal and allow fans to take their own precautions, enact their own surveillance and distancing. Or MLB might ban fans and so mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This option too would only heighten the current panopticism of the major league experience, the constant surveillance we practice of the players on the field, the cameras zoomed close to capture every twitch of anxiety, their Twitter feeds we scour and excoriate. That a small crease on an Astros jersey can be a major storyline is evidence of panopticism. We, and not just the leagues or media, are a means of surveillance. We exercise power. We sit in our tower, our phone screens and digital televisions projecting baseball in thousands of tiny pixels. The flow of information moves in only one direction. We see and are unseen. 

What happens to major league crowds may be a matter of timing. We have no idea what is coming, but if the weather warms and COVID-19’s threat seems to diminish, as happened with the Spanish Flu in the summer of 1918, it might be that by the time tragedy strikes a major league MLB game, the action needed to prevent future loss of life is no longer relevant.

Furthermore, actions like those taken by Inslee in Washington may become more widespread in the coming weeks. A recent episode of The Daily suggests that the outbreak may be heaviest in Washington only because a doctor broke federal rules to begin testing those who hadn’t traveled abroad, a decision that led to the first discovered case of domestically spread COVID-19. Seattle may in fact be different only in that it has a head start in testing, which is to say that while, for now, it appears only the Mariners will play home games at an alternate location, we may only be weeks from similar rules sweeping across the nation.

But what should MLB do? That answer is obvious. And so beyond the nausea of the virus itself, we stand to lose our anchor. A whole season of empty ballparks. What if the Dodgers’ Betts gamble pays off, and they win their first World Series in more than 30 years without a single fan having attended along the way? The Dodgers storm the field at Dodger Stadium and touch elbows in celebration.

Once, I sat behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, but way up in the upper deck. Beyond center field, I could see the parking lot stretching across Chavez Ravine, small hills tufted with flammable bushes and palm trees, and the skyline beyond. The game was a sellout, and yet I don’t remember the fans: their faces, their noise, their joy. 

And of course, it could even be worse. What happens when, say, a Yankees clubhouse attendant tests positive? Wouldn’t the entire 25-man roster be forced to self-quarantine? Will their games be postponed? Could we see a division title settled in a bout between minor leaguers?

If 2020, or even 2021, are our most digitally experienced seasons, our most remote, maybe then they can push us, eventually, back into the ballpark. Maybe now we can better see what baseball offers us.

Personally, I know no greater sanctuary than the ballpark. The block leading to T-Mobile Park and the hot dogs simmering in beer, caramel corn stirred in massive kettles. The smells of food but also of Pioneer Square in Seattle—piss, garbage, the kelpy breeze off Puget Sound. Wackos stand with megaphones and preach hellfire. And through the front gate, a series of escalators, the curving concourse and tunnel that opens to the grass, the dirt. It’s not quite time for first pitch, and the outfielders are playing catch.

It will come back to us, just maybe not as soon as we’d like. 


Matt Greene teaches writing in Appalachia. Other sports bickering can be found in the Pacific Northwest Inlander, and his fiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Moss, Santa Monica Review, and Spillway.
newest oldest most voted