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WHY WOULD ANY SELF-RESPECTING HUMAN BEING FORGIVE BASEBALL?
A senseless labor impasse has left more than scars on the American sports psyche — it’s fair to ask if owners, in prolonging a fight that could have been resolved long ago, have lost the fans forever
Like a thief who steals your identity, a driver who runs over your dog or a lover who strays with the Amazon delivery guy, the lords of baseball cannot be forgiven. They’ve spent decades taking you for granted, pausing a sport for selfish interests at their convenience, treating fans as collateral damage. Now, at the end of a labor impasse that should have been resolved months ago, a useless commissioner pleads for mercy.
Boycott the season.
Do something more worthwhile with your time, money and passion.
“I want to start by apologizing to our fans,’’ said Rob Manfred, trying to pull you back with a quiver in his voice. “I know that the last few months have been difficult. There was a lot of uncertainty at a point in time when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world. Sort of the way the process of collective bargaining works sometimes.”
Yeah, sort of the way Major League Baseball disregards the invasion of Ukraine, the price of gasoline and an ongoing pandemic so it can swing its flaccid member for … what reason, exactly? Just what did Manfred and the owners gain from their warfare with the Players Association? A postseason that expands to 12 teams, which only further dilutes October when the TV ratings never have been lower? Advertisements on uniforms and decals on helmets, the latest evidence of greed and desperation in an industry that once valued tradition and resisted selling out? They didn’t even get a 20-second pitch clock, so sorely needed with games crawling longer than ever amid an unwatchable ennui, instead settling for a “new joint committee’’ that will have a 45-day window to impose rule changes.
Starting, ugh, next year.
The nerve of these men to assume there will be a next year, that ticket-buyers suddenly will swarm to ballparks. They think you’re stupid, and, if you go back, they’re right. Not that anyone won this chicken fight, but the union landed some body blows. Younger players are helped by a minimum-salary increase to $700,000. And the competitive-balance-tax thresholds jump to $230 million this season and $242 million in 2026, but those serve as mere window dressing for the sport’s existential problems. The big-revenue teams simply will spend more money and widen the competitive canyon between the haves and have-nots. And don’t be foolish and think revisions in the amateur draft — a lottery determines the top six spots — will stem the cancerous spread of intentional losing. Tankers will keep tanking.
A rectum that required an enema instead was dabbed with wipes. Yet there was Manfred, celebrating a continuing funeral by declaring, “I could not be more excited about the future of our game.” Why would that be? On his watch, MLB has drooped to a near-niche existence in this land, lapped long ago in relevance by the NFL, college football and the NBA and falling behind, at various intervals in the calendar, NASCAR, the golf and tennis majors and, of course, the video game leagues watched by a generation unaware that baseball is played. Rather than explain how he intends to kickstart a corpse, the commissioner shockingly faulted himself, echoing what the masses have said about him for years. He vows to have a better relationship with the union’s executive director, Tony Clark.
Isn’t it too late in the game for such a promise, likely empty?
“One of the things that I'm supposed to do is promote a good relationship with our players. I’ve tried to do that. I think that I have not been successful in that,’’ Manfred said. “I think that it begins with small steps. It's why I picked the phone up after the ratification and called Tony and expressed my desire to work with him. It's gonna be a priority of mine moving forward to try to make good on the commitment I made to him on the phone. … Our players are great, great athletes. I respect them, and I respect the input that we've received from them during this process. And we really did learn a lot.”
It’s easy to extend an olive branch after a deal is made. Where baseball continues to self-immolate is in failing to be proactive. Why did the owners waste 99 days of our lives with a lockout that could have been avoided altogether? “The way the process of collective bargaining is designed to work, it's really driven by two things: time and economic leverage,” said Manfred, explaining labor theories no one wants to hear. “No agreement comes together before those two things play out in a way that you find common ground. I think we made an agreement when it was possible to make an agreement.”
Therein lies the very definition of a weak leader. After slow-playing his battle for three years — who didn’t see this coming before the first trace of COVID-19? — Manfred and the owners now want fans to hurry back to camps in Florida and Arizona for exhibition games beginning next week. They also expect a rush of national conversation about a free-agency frenzy, with Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman among 200-plus players available.
I have news for them. Baseball has been swallowed by sports that aren’t interrupted by labor strife. The NBA’s dramas are compelling if crazy — the dark comedy of the Lakers, an early edge to Brooklyn in the Nets’ absurdist rivalry with a gagging James Harden and the 76ers, who were booed in Philadelphia by fans who started out booing Ben Simmons. March Madness is upon us, refreshingly so. The NFL’s quarterbacking circuses are over, I think, but the draft is coming. So is the Masters. Hockey fans love them some Stanley Cup playoffs. The tennis majors await in earnest. If it’s 2022, it’s a World Cup year in soccer.
Baseball? Who cares? A rude awakening is ahead for owners and players. “People can go to the ballpark. That will help,” said New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, in an Associated Press interview, heading back to his $324 million contract. “Maybe some people will go to the ballpark to tell us know how they feel negatively. That’s their right to do as well. I will say that nobody wants it to go this way. And some of the hurdles we’ve had to jump through over the last few weeks have not necessarily been ill will but just due process. It’s just a very democratic process, and some of these sorts of things take some time. But I think everybody is tremendously excited to get back and excited to get back in front of the fans.”
Sure, they’re excited. There are TV billions to be made. If nothing else, baseball avoided the disaster of 1994, when labor discord killed a World Series. But back then, the industry had everything to lose and began a gradual slip-slide, stumbling into a steroids scandal while the NFL and Michael Jordan sprinted past in the popularity derby.
Almost three decades later, MLB was an afterthought in the American consciousness when it waged this senseless labor conflict. As smoke from the wildfire lingers, it’s fair to ask if the sport has lost its fan base forever.
The operative phrase, in the vernacular, is whether baseball has been canceled. Opening Day, set for April 7, should be appropriately ghosted.
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 gravitated by osmosis to film projects.