September 27, 2022

First person: Joe Kelly pleads with fans to ‘not forget about baseball’ amid MLB lockout

Joe Kelly, a World Series champion with the Red Sox and the Dodgers, asks fans to remember the beauty of baseball even as the sport is in a lockdown.(Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

A plea: Don’t give up on baseball. It’s too important.

I get it. You’re knee-deep in the millionaires vs. billionaires conversation that has dominated this offseason, looking for the signs of baseball stirring to life — images of ballplayers in sunglasses tossing baseballs in the shadows of palm trees, talk of rookies who look promising or players who deserve second chances. But none of those trusty signs of spring are here because of Major League Baseball’s lockout. I don’t blame you. This lockout feels like the last straw and you’re tempted to turn your back on the game. The usual criticisms of baseball have come bubbling to the surface. Baseball is slow, out of touch, selfish, steeped in traditions that no one even remembers anymore. Yes, I get it. The game has been trying to hold onto your loyalty for years now. This is it. Enough.

But it’s time to take a breath and understand, deep down, that baseball is awesome, and the same critics who love to undermine America’s pastime know this. They know baseball can inspire, delight and define three-quarters of a calendar year. They cherish the game, and that’s why they take issue with the way things are being managed. Is it the money that is at stake here? No, it’s the game itself that’s at stake. And I — along with my friends from all corners of the sports and entertainment worlds — am on a mission to save it.

Of course they do. Ours has become the ultimate instant-gratification society, and the idea of baseball, the thinking man’s game, isn’t exactly scratching where most sports fans are itching. I get it. I was the kid who didn’t want to take time to read the book, instead simply dialing up the Spark Notes synopsis so I could move on. And that’s exactly what is going on now.

For some, all the business and beauty of baseball needs to be summed up in sound bites, tweets and Instagram stories. It’s so much more, which is a lesson I have learned.

The life-changing, meme-able fights off and on the field. Releasing a tidal wave of emotions from the mound on the World Series stage. “@#!&, yeah!” Defining lifelong relationships with late-October hugs on the Dodger Stadium field have meant everything. For me, that has all been because of baseball. You might not think this is an emotional game. Too much standing around. Picking flowers in the outfield. Talk, talk, talk and wait, wait, wait. Then, boom! The heart rate goes up for a few seconds. Then the cycle starts all over again.

That’s the knock. OK. But let me tell you that baseball can elicit the kind of emotions life rarely presents. And just when you think you had figured out those feelings, along comes something you didn’t expect.

I know. It has happened to me.

Baseball has allowed me plenty of wake-up calls. Maybe this is the time for one more for us all.

This should be the reminder that baseball is a book, not a sentence.

Baseball is different from any other sport, where often you can watch the last few minutes of a game and get the gist. The NBA? The NFL? The NHL? What you see is what you get. Nothing wrong with any of it. The fast pace, the tight focus on a moving object, the made-for-TV rhythms of the season — they’re all tailor-made for today’s fans. Baseball? It’s a bit more complicated and that’s OK. Baseball makes you think. It makes you talk. Questions are being asked and answered. Why is that player doing this or that? And when the answers do arrive, the world somehow always seems to be a little bit better of a place.

If you’re patient enough, you can see that besaball is a combination of chess, ballet, a classroom and cannon fire.

When you’re watching bat flips, punch-outs, home run-robbing catches and laser throws from the warning track, it’s easy to remember all the feels. Bathing in news of collective-bargaining agreements, not so much.

We can’t let this conversation slip away; we have to be diligent here, work hard to open a path for more and more sports fans to understand the importance of what baseball represents. This isn’t Amazon. I can’t order up a dose of October postseason drama, drop it at your doorstep and simply quench your thirst for instant gratification. That’s not how baseball works. And that’s OK. It’s better than OK. So why is this message so important to me and my baseball-playing brethren? Because maybe this is a crossroads. The momentum of 2021 was great. Younger fans. More excitement. A genuine feeling that a new generation was starting to buy in. And now we’re at a screeching halt, stuck with hype men for baseball in the form of labor-relation attorneys. Would I love to throw my mariachi jacket on Rob Manfred and start turning those boardroom frowns upside down? Of course.

It’s where we belong and for fans it’s a place where we can forget about the job, the workplace and the business end of life — and just be. Bring on the celebrations, colorful cleats and seven months of chaos. It’s where players can be personalities, not just numbers. Let’s not forget the pageantry of it all. We have to trust that when the game emerges once more it will be better than ever and that’sbecause we’ll appreciate it more. I sincerely believe that.

All I ask is that while we are waiting, don’t forget why you care so much. Don’t forget why you own that player’s jersey. Don’t forget why you bring that baseball glove to the game. Don’t forget why you felt compelled to ask those questions and get those answers. Don’t forget why baseball is so awesome.

I haven’t, and never will.

Joe Kelly is a Major League Baseball player who won World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2018 and the Dodgers in 2020.