Congratulations to all of us! We reached an important milestone this week in baseball collective bargaining. A group of fans have officially surfaced to have their say.
It was Tuesday when something called the National Fans Union wrote an open letter to commissioner Rob Manfred – published in Bud Selig’s hometown newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel no less – and demanded a say in “how our money is spent”, asking him to somehow get a seat at the table.
I mean, not to make fun of it. The anger over baseball collective bargaining is understandable. Let’s face it: we had it with BS COVID. Putin. Convoys. Snow. Enough. Sport is supposed to take us away from it all, not contribute to it. Anger means people care; it beats the alternative. And while I tend to dismiss fan anger – sports fans talk about a big game, but they always come back one way or another – I wonder if a cautionary tale isn’t necessary.
God knows history has never felt more important than it does now on so many levels. And if regular season games are lost, it will be the first time since 1994-95 that it has happened because of a labor dispute – the first time it has happened because of a lockout initiated by the owner.
The game has changed. The way we consume the game as fans has changed. Could this lead to an altered reaction?
Greg Bouris started me down this path. A former communications director for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Bouris suggested on Blair & Barker that the pace of change in baseball since the last CBA was signed was so drastic that he made that deal dated even before the ink does not dry.
He is right: during this period, the owners have won more and more financially and the players have seen less and less of the financial cake. Franchise values have increased; average wages have stagnated below the rate of inflation. WAR has gone from a wacky statistic that incited fights between old-school and new-school sewing bosses to an accepted fact that could even be used to determine salary. And don’t get us started on Game 1 and how the Tampa Bay Rays went for Austin Pruitt nine different times — or thereabouts — last season. Analytics has been a boon for teams to find cheap labor, but it’s no friend for the majority of players. It’s no fun being fungible, people.
And now, look at us at that time. Look at us baseball fans and what we’ve been through. COVID has created dislocation in every aspect of our lives, and in some ways I’ve found baseball’s botched return from a pandemic shutdown more embarrassing than this struggle for work. Plus, we pretty much realized the Houston Astros cheated to get to the World Series. Pleasant. And what did we bitch about when we weren’t bitching about the Astros? Pace of play. Three real results. Changes. All sorts of fun stuff produced by the game’s chatter courses. And did we mention that sewer of a Hall of Fame ballot? I still have burn marks on my hands from filling it up.
And that’s just thinking back to the last CBA. Let’s go back further to 1995, when the game came out of its strike after trying to impose replacement players on the world. We are completely different sports consumers. Back then, we all thought it was still important for fans to fill stadiums, aware that television was a big driver of payroll and revenue, but unwilling to recognize that the world was changing. Bums in the seats are still a measure of financial health – they announce ballpark attendance numbers, not ratings – but now there’s a whole world online and streaming that wasn’t there before. . You can watch clips of every game every night without leaving the couch. At the time, the idea that you would be able to legally play on a ball game inside the stadium or that MLB would partner with a game team was laughable. Gaming was – before steroids, and don’t worry, we’re getting there – the third rail of gaming. Now we’re doing it on an app. In the baseball stadium. Minor League Baseball? It has been ruled by technology, cost effectiveness and training facilities throughout the year.
It seems odd now, but one of the reasons Cal Ripken, Jr.’s back-to-back streak was so vital coming out of the strike was because it personified the everyday nature of the Majors. It became a focal point of television coverage, and when he finally broke Lou Gehrig’s record on September 6, 1995, it seemed to put the match back on schedule. There was a punctual aspect to it; a sort of blue-collar salubrity that ultimately turned out to be something else entirely. It appeared that Ripken became more insular as the streak progressed, with a growing separation between him and his Baltimore Orioles teammates.
But at least it wasn’t as difficult as watching Barry Bonds chase and pass Henry Aaron. Yeah…here are the steroids.
If Ripken restored the game’s biorhythms, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s 1998 split-bill home derby put a bit of sexiness into the game. It was one of the few times baseball had entered the popular culture at large, as the NBA and NFL now regularly do. It was perfect for TV, and we all took sides: I was a Sosa guy, because he seemed to embrace it while McGwire was moody and brooding. “Chicks Dog the Longball” was baseball’s official marketing slogan. The guys got big all of a sudden, but everyone was having so much fun.
It almost seemed unnatural.
This is not to challenge the era of steroids. But that’s to remind you that baseball’s return from the 1994 abyss came at a cost.
We still don’t know when/how this dispute will be resolved, but as the days went on I’ve been wondering more and more about the concept of an expanded playoff. We know owners want it; we know the teams have set parameters that strongly suggest this will happen with, probably, 12 teams. We also know that the Major League Baseball Players Association has publicly stated that it will not agree to extend the playoffs unless the owners agree to a fully paid 162-game regular season. The owners, in turn, said it was not on the table without a deal by Monday.
They have to be careful, because of all the issues in these negotiations, the only one that’s easy for fans to digest is the expanded playoffs. And if it lasts longer, that’s really the only thing baseball can offer its fans as a reward for their patience. “Hey guys, we’re back!” may no longer be enough. “Hey guys, we’re back and your hopeless team just got a playoff shot!” is an easier sell.
But above all, I think the commissioner, the owners and the players must restore the calendar. I remember my former Sportsnet colleague Brian Burke talking about how important it was for the NHL to leave no stone unturned to get back on its feet during the pandemic, as the schedule for sport at all levels depended on the return of the NHL at a normal business cycle. Fans, prospects, career minor leaguers, college and high school players – we all need Major League players and owners to make the schedule count again. Developmental. Competitively. Economically and yes, spiritually.
If you’re of a certain age, you know that much of what baseball has sold us since 1994-95 hasn’t been treated well by history, but most of us will give it another shot. because it’s a hell of a game and we’ve not seen a generation of talent like this. Most of us will suck it up, put on the waders and plow through the BS But if it drags, I wonder how many we’ll take with us. It’s been a long road, guys. Something you might want to think about.
Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker as well as the Blue Jays post-game show on @Sportsnet 590/The Fan.