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Major League Baseball, we’ve been told, could return soon. Maybe by early July.
For restless fans who’ve been sheltering in place and filling the void with documentaries, classic game replays and Korean Baseball Organization action, that would be welcome news.
Of course, there are a number of hurdles to clear first. As Bleacher Report’s Bob Klapisch recently outlined, money is one of them, and that could derail the whole thing.
The owners are worried they’ll lose revenue with no fans in the stands paying for tickets, food and parking.
“Without those accessories, the owners predict the outright collapse of at least one or two teams if they’re forced to rely mostly on TV broadcasts,” Klapisch noted. “Several others are already teetering. They’re asking the players to go 50-50 on whatever revenue is generated over the rest of the year.”
The players’ union has apparently scoffed at that notion and is demanding prorated salaries for the truncated season regardless of the presence of fans.
Defensible arguments exist on both sides. And there are a lot of issues to sort out, including how to play games safely amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the exact length of the season, the format of the playoffs and more.
All parties involved, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, have their work cut out for them.
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But if this really does come down to a battle of wills over the almighty dollar with neither side willing to budge and fans ultimately losing out on a season that might have been special, this whole business will have a familiar, unsettling feeling.
And it could be a debacle for the sport.
We’ve been here before. Sort of.
In 1994, owners and players butted heads over financial concerns, including the idea of a salary cap. Some players felt they were being exploited; some owners were crying poverty. In the absence of a compromise, the players went on strike in August 1994 and didn’t return to work for 232 days.
A lot was lost.
San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 at the time of the strike and was making a run at the first .400 season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Williams hit his 43rd home run in Game 115, his team’s last of the wiped-out season, and was on pace to challenge Roger Maris’ then-single-season record of 61.
The Montreal Expos owned the best record in baseball at 74-40 behind an exciting core of emerging stars such as Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker, and they had a shot at the first title in franchise history.
Instead, the World Series was canceled.
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But the biggest loss came in a different form: the distrust, anger and disinterest of fans.
When the players and owners finally reached an accord and play resumed in 1995, average attendance dropped from 31,256 in ’94 to 25,021 in ’95. Rather than rushing back, many fans stayed home. Those who attended games frequently booed the players, waved derisive signs and even threw money on the field.
Slowly, baseball recovered. Events between the lines, including Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak of consecutive games played and Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s record-breaking home run chase in 1998, rekindled interest, and baseball enjoyed an extended stretch of labor stability.
The unmasking of widespread performance-enhancing drug use in the sport brought more suspicion and fan cynicism, however, and baseball has never fully regained its title as the true national pastime.
Today, by many metrics, MLB is less popular and culturally relevant than the NFL and the NBA, with other fast-rising sports such as soccer and MMA also competing for eyeballs.
Roberto Borea/Associated Press
Simply put, baseball cannot afford anything close to a repeat of 1994.
Yes, a lot of things are different this time. The 2020 season would have started as normal and run its course if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, and that can’t be blamed on the players or the owners.
But MLB piqued fans’ interest with rumblings about having a season after COVID-19 put it in serious doubt. A shorter season, sure, likely with modified divisions, mostly empty stadiums and a bunch of other rule tweaks to make it feasible. But a season nonetheless.
If MLB pulls this off, it would be the first major American sport to return. It could be an inspirational moment for the country and the world—or at least a welcome diversion.
Again, the safety of the players and everyone else involved is paramount. But if the sticking point is simply how to divide the money, don’t expect average fans struggling to make ends meet to be overly sympathetic.
Bringing baseball back won’t be simple for a number of reasons. These negotiations will surely go until the 11th hour.
But the players and owners cannot let this crumble over cash. As in ’94, many would see it as a tiresome squabble between millionaires and billionaires.
And unless they remember that harsh lesson, both sides—and MLB in general—will suffer the consequences.