“The owners and players knew they could never alienate the fans again.” -- Narrator Keith David in the Ken Burns documentary film “Baseball, The Tenth Inning: Home”
We are a little more than a week away from the start of spring training and less than two months away from opening day. Under normal circumstances, these are events that baseball fans should welcome with joyous anticipation.
Hope springs eternal, every team has a chance, and the winter chill is almost behind us.
We’re talkin’ baseball … Willie, Mickey, and The Duke.
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today, look at me, I can be center field.
All right, stop the music. These, as we all know, are not normal times. For nearly a year, we’ve been dealing with a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans and it’s not over yet. That’s why we should not be celebrating the start of another baseball season.
Not yet anyway.
The proposal made by the owners last Friday to push back the start of spring training and the season by a month while shortening it to 154 games made a lot of sense. It was rejected Monday by the players union.
At a time when vaccinations are starting to be administered at a more rapid pace, it seems logical to delay things for multiple reasons. Starting at a later date would open the door for more players and fans to be vaccinated during the course of the season. That would make it safer for the players and open the gates for the fans to return to the ballpark.
That’s a big issue for the owners who claim they lost $3 billion last season when only 60 regular-season games were played – all without fans. It should be a big one for the players, too, because the game is not the same without people in attendance and it will not exist at all if the owners and players revert to alienating the people who pay for their product.
Other issues were also impacted by another infamous episode of the owners and players failing to reach an agreement. A year ago, the playoffs were expanded to eight teams in each league and the designated hitter was used in both leagues. The owners offer last week called for a seven-team playoff format in each league and the return of the universal DH. The players are all for the designated hitter rule, but they did not want to make the concession of an expanded playoffs unless they were guaranteed their full 162-game salary for the 2021 season.
The owners were willing to pay the players for 162 games in their 154-game proposal, but the players had health reservations about trying to cram 154 games into a 24-week season.
Even though it appears as if spring training will indeed start on time, it’s still possible that the universal DH and expanded playoffs will happen in 2021. The expanded playoff field last season was not agreed upon until opening day.
Both things really need to remain part of the game as does the rule where a runner starts at second base in extra innings. The seven-inning doubleheader can stay, too. Baseball is in need of those changes in an effort to attract younger fans. According to a 2017 study by the Sports Business Journal, the average fan watching baseball on TV is 57 years old, which was seven years older than NFL viewers and 15 years older than NBA viewers. The study indicated that the age was rising.
One clear way to get more fans interested is to add playoff teams. More offense, as the NFL and NBA will tell you, is also helpful and that’s not going to come from pitchers going to the plate.
It’s hard to blame the owners for wanting more fans in the seats because the financial hit they took last season was real, but one of the major complaints from the union is that the other side did not come forward with its 154-game proposal until almost February. The negotiating should have started in mid-December when it was clear there would be a vaccine available in 2021.
The bigger problem here is that the owners and the union have dug in their heels and taken us back to a time when there was perpetual labor strife that led to major work stoppages in 1972, 1981, and finally 1994 when the World Series was canceled and replacements went to spring training in 1995.
It was that disastrous time that Ken Burns covered in his 2010 documentary that was an addendum to his original nine-part Baseball series in 1994. The last work stoppage prevented Tony Gwynn from pursuing a .400 batting average and cost the Montreal Expos their chance at a magical season and ultimately their franchise.
“My concern about all this is how it is going to affect the game,” former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “I don’t want fans to give up on our sport and I think both sides need to put the sport ahead of their financial interests.”
Barring some unforeseen circumstances, baseball spring-training camps are going to open soon and the 2021 season will begin on April 1 with the Phillies playing the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. We don’t know when the first players will be vaccinated and we don’t know when the first fans will be allowed in the ballpark.
One thing we do know is that the current collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players expires Dec. 1 and given baseball’s labor climate, the 2022 season is sure to be delayed. And that will not be a good thing either.