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Where Does Baseball Go From Here?

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Brett Barnett

2019 ALCS Game 3 - Houston Astros v. New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Like many of you, I was excited for the 2020 Major League Baseball season. Granted, the Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t going to be a very formidable team, but there’s excitement in the air on Opening Day of any year, regardless of team expectations. There’s the old baseball cliché that on the first day of games, everyone has a record of 0-0, so theoretically each team is on equal footing and “anything could happen.” Many of us in our heart of hearts know this to be an untruth. All skepticism notwithstanding, we emerge from winter with hope in bloom, just as the flowers do in springtime, growing alongside the baseball calendar.

Fans have been deprived of that new hope this season. Personally, 2020 was set to be my first full season uninhibited by other baseball commitments in the last two years. I hadn’t been able to focus my attention on MLB because of duties in minor league baseball, one year working in the press box and one year as an intern. I haven’t experienced a pure focus on Pirates’ baseball since 2017. The argument could be made that I haven’t missed much, but even when the team is bad, I can derive some joy from the 162-game slog.

I’m sure many of you had plans to be on the North Shore on a Saturday evening, with an uncanny ability to settle into your seat just prior to first pitch, no matter what obstacles were in the way leading up to 7:05. While there are many pressing issues in our society at this time, it may be hard to focus on baseball, or the lack thereof. You may even go so far as to say that it’s hard to focus on baseball with other sports preparing to fire up.

Some sports have even already returned. The English soccer league, the Premier League, restarted June 17, while NASCAR restarted several weeks before. Other major leagues also have tentative start dates, with the NHL ready to resume action July 10 and the NBA ramping back up July 31; Formula 1 racing is also slated to begin in early July.

Many thought baseball had an incredible opportunity to capture the spotlight in a sport-less world. After all, the MLB regular season hadn’t yet begun prior to the shutdown, and many thought they may face some of the fewest health hurdles of any sport, given the mostly contactless nature of the game. Although logistically challenging, it was still a belief that baseball would be one of, if not the first, sport back.

Yet, as a write this, there is no targeted date for the return of baseball. Just a few weeks ago, we kept hearing July 4 as a potential restart date. It would’ve been a show of patriotism had the nation’s pastime been able to pull that off. It’s now evident that it won’t happen.

Increasingly it seems as though both MLB and the MLBPA want fans to pick a side. That’s left a division among fans, with some agreeing with the owners on “economic” grounds, while others agree with the players; some have decided to disagree with both, apparently foregoing interest in the sport altogether.

MLB has been staunchly rooted in its propositions, showing an unwillingness to cede to many players’ demands, all the while purporting to be in financial turmoil, ostensibly in an attempt to claim near-insolvency and try to garner support from the floundering and increasingly disinterested fanbase, despite the unwillingness to make more of its financial records known. All this comes in the face of a deal between MLB and TBS, which Forbes claims could yield $2 billion per year in annual television contracts.

On the other hand, the players’ union suggests that they’re fighting for more than just this season – they say they’re fighting for all future players, claiming that the league has repeatedly treated them unfairly. This isn’t a hard concept for fans to latch onto. While many are painting these disputes as “millionaires versus billionaires,” it’s easy to see that there’s a clear and skewed power dynamic between both sides, especially given the fact that most players aren’t, in fact, millionaires.

The players have shown resiliency and were unwilling to balk at the league’s refusal to grant them what they felt was fair, like the term du jour pro-rata pay for more than one-hundred games played. Meanwhile, MLB is questioning the financial viability of these types of plans, instead insisting on a meager 50-game schedule. Recently, many players opted to simply say, “Tell us when and where,” in response to MLB’s refusal to reach an agreement. This didn’t work for MLB, fearing the players would ultimately file a grievance against the league.

Finally, Rob Manfred’s failure to pilot these negotiations and apparently taking sides against the players has turned baseball’s fan base against him, with the masses touting him as incompetent and unable to facilitate any kind of meaningful progress between MLB and the MLBPA. A week ago, Manfred espoused confidence that there would be baseball in 2020. Now, as Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic has helped point out, he’s recanted that prediction, perhaps in an effort to posture and stall, alleging that he’s “not confident” a season will happen this year.

While MLB and the MLBPA continue to air out their own dirty laundry, fans are seeing all of this for what it is: A mess between two parties who are failing to see the bigger picture and who are both thinking too short-term. This kind of kerfuffle is helping to alienate the fanbase and insist that they pick sides, like a messy divorce.

What’s left on the other side may be eternally damaging. By lacking the foresight to understand how all of this affects the game fans love, some will become turned off. Some will begrudgingly return. But the population which might’ve come to love the game won’t ever get that opportunity.

Major League Baseball had an opportunity to be front-and-center during the pandemic, giving those who were lukewarm or entirely disinterested in baseball a reason to watch it. Now they’re only giving more people a reason to avoid it. Perhaps the players are looking out for the future, and perhaps the owners are legitimately worried about how feasible all of this is, but there’s a chance none of that will matter.

While both MLB and the MLBPA think that they’re working for the benefit of “their” side, they’re actually working towards killing the sport as we know it. Major League Baseball might not completely dissolve, but these massive television deals and contracts may become a thing of a short and bygone era. The aftermath of that is that fewer and fewer kids will become interested in the sport, leading to a smaller talent pool, which leads to a dwindled and watery version of the game we’ve come to know.

I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that the very fate of baseball is at stake with these negotiations. Despite that, with each passing jab, we seem further and further away from any kind of positive resolution. Once the current CBA expires in December 2021, with the threat of a players’ strike looming ever larger, that might be the final strike for Major League Baseball. The fans and onlookers realize this. Do the players and owners?

(Since this writing, there have been some developments, which can be found here from Jeff Passan and here from Ken Rosenthal.)