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IF ONLY THE BRAVES COULD INSPIRE MLB TO AVOID A LABOR CRASH
A messy sport that can’t afford a work stoppage is careening toward a Dec. 2 lockout anyway, sure to ignore the charming lessons of a hellbent champion that figured out innumerable challenges
Wait, what just happened? What the @#$%&!!#%$&@!! just happened? A team with a losing record on Aug. 1, representing a franchise that had made 16 straight postseason appearances without a title, sure to break more hearts in a city that suffered the Falcons blowing a 25-point Super Bowl lead and 63 years of whiffs by the NBA Hawks, managed by a 66-year-old grandpa who’d been rudely bounced around the organization for four-plus decades, and dubiously known for ignorant fans who engage in a racist chant ritual called the Tomahawk Chop?
The Atlanta Braves did, what? They won a World Series despite an injury plague that left them unrecognizable, without their MVP-caliber cornerstone and ace pitcher and too many others to mention, requiring two complete overhauls of their outfield and a slew of midseason deals? They limited baseball’s most potent offense to two or fewer runs in four of six games, despite losing their Game 1 starter to a broken leg, behind a fierce bullpen featuring a former bonus baby who literally forgot how to pitch through anxiety attacks and yips and only three years ago was living in a borrowed RV on a last gasp with the independent Texas AirHogs while preparing for life as a licensed electrician?
“How many times were we left for dead?’’ said CEO Terry McGuirk.
And they won when the final grounder hopped to Dansby Swanson, who grew up in Atlanta suburbia and lived with the same abject sports pain and whipped the ball across the diamond — in the same ballpark where the Houston Astros had electronically stolen signs, banged on trash cans and cheated to win the 2017 Series — to Freddie Freeman. Who else but Freddie Freeman, Mr. Brave, who’d waited 15 years for this as the team’s longest-tenured player? “I’m still numb, so I really don’t have emotions,’’ said the likable leader and icon. “We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly this year, and somehow the car still made it. This city has been hungry for a championship for so long, and I can’t wait to see the crowds when we get back home.’’
If this wasn’t pure poetry, the Georgia boy and long-toiling franchise face collaborating for the last out, it was when manager Brian Snitker stood amid the gathering celebration, searching the stands for the wife who’d supported him each time he left for another seven-month, minor-league journey on Southern bus rides for a big-league front office that treated him like crap. Turns out the Snitkers were inconvenienced yet again, with Ronnie forced to wait in a stadium hallway and watch the final out on television.
“Honey, we did it!’’ he would say from the stage at an otherwise quiet and vacant Minute Maid Park, where the Braves were celebrating their first championship since 1995. He would add, “For 16 years in a row, I left in February and didn’t come home until September. Ronnie did an amazing job keeping the family running. If it wasn’t for her, I couldn’t have done this.’’
In the sweeping picture of American sports, still shaken by uncertain times, what the Braves did was present undeserved gifts of life and hope to a troubled, outdated, labor-ravaged industry. If Major League Baseball possessed a smidgen of leadership, it would use the unlikely feel-good momentum of October (and, ugh, November) to inspire an institutional rebirth. The owners and their puppet commissioner, Rob Manfred, are hellbent to lock out the players if no collective bargaining agreement is reached by midnight on Dec. 2. They will take this action even though their game never has had uglier autumn TV ratings, never has been less relevant in the national consciousness, never has slogged at a slower pace, never has had longer game times, never has had a wider disparity between haves and have-nots, never has had more teams trying to tank, and never has appealed less to younger generations.
The last MLB work stoppage, in 1994-95, wiped out a World Series and allowed the NFL and Michael Jordan to blow past baseball and its Mr. Magoo leadership in the express lanes. Another work stoppage just might kill baseball.
“I’m a believer in the process,’’ Manfred said last week.
Unfortunately, few are believers in Manfred and the owners.
“It’s hard to characterize progress,” the so-called commissioner babbled. “Progress is you go in the room, you’re having conversations, people are continuing to talk. It doesn’t move in any measurable way that I’ve ever figured out, and I’ve done it for a long time. The most important point is I know our clubs are 100 percent committed to the idea that they want an agreement by Dec. 1.”
Yeah, and I want a $19 million Bugatti La Voiture Noire for Christmas. Ever since Manfred replaced Bud (Lite) Selig and dragged the sport into an even more hapless, hopeless place, he has talked about streamlining his product for 21st-century audiences. Instead, there’s nothing but more inertia, longer games and more yawns. With a widespread de-emphasis of traditional starting pitchers who kept the pace moving — and I’d argue this is an ownership ploy to prevent the price of elite arms from approaching $400 million — the bullpenning glue-togethers that helped the Braves survive (and thrive) only have prolonged the game times. The nine-inning average set another wrong-way all-time record in the regular season: 3 hours, 10 minutes, 7 seconds.
The postseason made a push toward four hours, with the World Series averaging 3 hours and 41 minutes. No fewer than eight games last month lasted more than four hours. So, goes the age-old complaint, how will MLB ever grow its market among the Little League set when kids under 10 are in bed before games end in at least two time zones?
Before Dusty Baker departed with yet another postseason crash and Game 6 bugaboo — but please put him in the Hall of Fame, anyway, for salvaging Houston’s public-relations disaster and nearly winning a clean Series — he directed an opinion toward MLB. “Sometimes it feels slow,” Baker said. “But commercial time pays the bills, and that’s the reality of it all. You can cut down the commercial time, and then you got to cut down on the amount of money that’s passed around.”
The owners will run naked around infields during the seventh-inning stretch before they give back commercial and concession money and, say, install a 20-second pitch clock. Never mind the progress reported with a 15-second pitch clock last summer in the eight-team Low-A West League, where 21 total game-time minutes were trimmed on average.
Besides, the issues are more complex. As the only North American sport without a salary cap, the MLB season ended with more teams tanking than trying to win. Is it really a major-league game when the Pittsburgh Pirates, who quit on entire seasons so they can draft premier prospects before trading them away when it’s time to pay up, face the Los Angeles Dodgers and their $270 million payroll? It feels like one big “Ted Lasso’’ episode. Is Premier League-type relegation the next step?
Which underlines what was special about the Braves. They are owned by Liberty Media, a conglomerate that should spend big after disrupting Atlanta’s traditional downtown baseball culture — and moving the team to a new retail-and-entertainment complex in predominantly white Cobb County. And in late July, rather than give up on a problematic season, McGuirk ordered baseball boss Alex Anthopoulos to spend liberally at the trade deadline. Without the spectacular Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna, the Braves were desperate for outfielders and bats.
In came Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler. The sports world barely blinked. Soler, for one, was hitting .192 with a lame Kansas City team. Tuesday night, after the other three had lifted the Braves with clutch postseason contributions, he hit a ball so far — 446 feet, over the silly train tracks above the Crawford Boxes, not far from where the Astros used a center-field camera to steal and relay signs of opposing teams — that it still might be rolling if it hadn’t hit an awning outside the stadium and stopped on a sidewalk. A man, enjoying the game at a fifth-floor watch party in a nearby apartment complex, noticed the ball and schemed his way past a security guard and through a chain-link fence. Soler won’t get the ball back without some serious compensation, but he does own a World Series MVP trophy.
Inside Cheaters Park, all that was lacking diuring the raging Braves party was an appearance by the architect. It figures, given the season’s challenges, that Anthopoulos would contract COVID-19 two days before his finest hour. So, as he has for 45 years, Brian Snitker stepped in and helped out the organization as spokesman for a fairy tale come true.
How did he deal with those bus rides? “I learned, because you have to go to the bathroom,” he said. “And on minor-league bus rides, guys are sleeping everywhere. They are sprawled across seats. They’re sleeping in the aisle. They’re sleeping in the luggage racks. My goodness, you are stepping on people in the dark to get to the bathroom in the back. So I stopped drinking on the bus.”
There is a lesson in this for Rob Manfred and the owners. You know: Figure it out.
More likely, they’ll wet their pants.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.