I wrote this for the Baseball Prospectus BP Idol contest. I'm guessing it may have been the only fiction submitted. Today and tomorrow, we'll continue to play the Phillies, who beat the hell out of Jo-Jo yesterday. And now, a glimpse into the future of baseball...
The year is 2137. Overpopulated cities are terrorized by bicycle gangs named after their base condo complex. Prefab stucco homes in suburban subdivisions lie dilapidated, abandoned. Most are tagged by identical graffiti: "Peak Oil Party On!"
Barnstorming and touring are prohibited by the Energy Czar, so sports teams are purely regional. Each city has only a handful of professional ballgladiators, who play a brutal hybrid of basketball, football, and hockey before packed crowds of fans and challengers who would kill - and frequently do - for a chance to unseat the living legends at the top. The only things that cross the country are the bicycle raiders and the airwaves, and both spread one message: fame at any price. Success at any cost.
No grass grows in the smog-choked cities, where indoor parquet-astroturf arenas entertain hundreds of thousands of bloodthirsty fans a night. Outside the cities, in the exurban overgrowth, a few religious souls dare to spend their lunch breaks in a grassy field, using pillows as bases and contraband prewar bats, playing a few minutes of unregulated stickball before rushing back to town on Segways.
President Juan Harper is in his sixth term as president after an astonishing fifteen-year undefeated run as the best quarterback in New York City. The cash-strapped and energy-starved federal government can only afford to flex its authority when collecting taxes or declaring war, and the condo raiders have made it hard for Harper to do either. Instead, he poses for photo opportunities on his red, white and blue Segway, while he hunts baseball players on the streets of Washington, celebrating his efforts to reduce overpopulation whenever he shoots a suspect. Those who do not die immediately are thrown into the basketball-football arenas, where they are torn apart by steroidal nose guards committing unwhistled offensive fouls. The crowd, sniffing blood, goes wild.
The cult of baseball has developed a catechism and holy writ over its three centuries of existence. "Get Thee Behind Me, Balk" is sung at player funerals, where a makeshift bat and glove are burned on a grassy pyre along with a Xeroxed copy of Moneyball. Young boys and girls in baseball Sunday school learn about the fathers of the church, Jackie Robinson and Crash Davis, and the One Prophet, Joe Posnanski.
It wasn't always underground. Hundreds of years ago, baseball wasn't just past but pastime. A monopoly was set up to protect archaic rules already ancient by the time the sport was in its prime. A tradition-obsessed fanbase kept scrupulous records of the exploits of multimillion dollar sluggers. Games snarled traffic for miles as people drove to the stadiums, most of which were themselves located outside the center of town.
After the 21st century economic crisis and oil shock, gas prices sent airlines out of business. The Alex Rodriguez Riots, radiating outward from New York City, blamed the economic crisis on out-of-control athlete salaries, turning their rage on baseball's half-billion dollar man, with protests and picket lines in every city that baseball was played. Frightened by the unrest, the American president turned to elderly Secretary of Sports David Stern, who devised a plan to co-opt the mobs' rage and unseat baseball once and for all.
The night before Opening Day, 2030, a coordinated major league Kristallnacht was unleashed, smashing stadiums, ripping clubhouse stores to shreds, and holding bonfires of entire Donruss print runs. Fearing reprisals, many Americans changed offending surnames like "Griffey" and "Alou" to more inoffensive ones, like "Smith" or "Polamalu." Segways with baseball decals were trashed; sports bars quickly replaced team pennants with Farrah Fawcett posters. Boston sidewalks crunched underfoot with the broken glass of neon Red Sox signs. Stern on his deathbed saw a world without baseball, and died with a smile on his lips.
President Harper's anti-baseball policy masks the great secret, and great shame, of his political life. His wife, Manuela Polamalu, belongs to a family once named Boone, which is bad enough. Far worse are the fireside whispers passed from mother to child in the baseball camps that he is baseball's savior, the last male descendent of his line, the great-grandson of the greatest player who ever lived. Bryce Harper. The name itself has been forbidden, its utterance punishable by death. No number of executed yard rats and hoodlum southpaws can ease the president's fear that the rumors may be true.
It is November. Bankers at the Federal Reserve notice a downturn in the Kansas City, Manchester, and Islamabad Stock Exchanges on the Twitter aggregator in their contact lenses - the last worldwide news source, after the death of the news media. The halting, predatory global economy tended to sneer rather than shriek when one of the many city-states saw its fortunes fall, but there had not been a global recession since Rodriguez. If President Harper want to collect taxes, it is a bad time. The world is ready to be toppled, but he can't afford a war. Instead, he wavers, waits, while salary freezes go out across the country.
The badly depleted police force, hurt by the wage crisis, is infiltrated by baseball cultists. Apprehensions plummet. Players in illicit games are tipped off before raids. Fewer and fewer players are caught and thrown to the lions, and sports fans used to seeing deathmatches in the arenas become hostile. A few begin to take to the streets in protest. To them, baseball means blood, and they begin to march. Baseball in the open, where the players would have to fight instead of flee. Baseball!
The prophecies are beginning to unfold. The last scion of the home run king, Juan Harper, accedes to the protesters' demands and issues a proclamation legalizing baseball once more. Renegade agronomists and physicists who have spent their leisure lives rediscovering baseball's statistical past emerge to serve as umpires, scorekeepers, color commentators. Box scores are expanded to include on-base percentage and WARP15. Suburban fields that had been torn up by police are re-divotted. Homemade hot dog grills and moonshine stands appear overnight.
Occasionally, ripped baskethockball players show up to challenge the undersized but fanatically devout baseball players. Bloody and suprisingly evenly matched on-field brawls leave the players badly mauled, and the fans satisfied. No one complains of a boring game. No one with an OBP under .300 ever leads off.
And no umpire ever calls a balk.