Since the mid-19th century, the game of baseball has been a part of the American landscape. The modern professional leagues can trace their origins to Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. The modern incarnation of the World Series between the AL and NL goes back to 1903. Since then, through World Wars, a Great Depression, significant social and domestic upheaval, natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, global pandemics and even a massive cheating scandal, we have had a World Series to decide the best to play the "American Past-time". Only twice in 117 years has America gone a year without a World Series: 1904 and 1994. Both were not the result of great external forces, but from inter-baseball squabbling, either between the heads of the respective leagues with personal animus (1904) or a high contentious labor dispute between owners and players (1994). Yet, as we move forward in this most chaotic 2020, are we starring down the barrel of the 3rd year without a World Series?
To say that 2020 has not gone according to anyone's plan is perhaps the greatest of understatements. A massive pandemic that brought the most powerful nation in the world to its knees, a booming economy that went from supersonic boom to depression-level bust in a series of weeks and a nation racked by massive protests spurred by long-standing racial tensions...each individually brutal in its own right, but combined (and throwing in some murder hornets) you could be excused for wondering if that whole Book of Revelation thing was actually coming to pass.
Normally, we would have things like Astros baseball to distract us from such things. After all, there was baseball during the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic (how fortunate baseball was that the 1918 World Series in Boston ended when it did with Boston winning the deciding game on Sept 11, 1918, as the city declared a public health emergency the next day), plenty of baseball played during the Great Depression and major protests/riots did not completely shut down baseball (from the protests of the 1960s to the fan-less game in Baltimore in 2015 in the midst of the protests/riots spurred by the death of Freddie Gray). Yet, in 2020, we are still awaiting Opening Day and one of the long-standing rites of the American Summer.
As the calendar moved through May, and states and nations started to lift various social distancing/quarantine restrictions, MLB offered the first steps towards restarting. Various proposals appeared, ranging from teams playing in games in their Spring Training Complexes to a more regionally focused series of leagues (Geographically categorized leagues playing each other only until the playoffs). In all of these discussions, the issues of player/manager/support personnel safety dominated the early headlines, as baseball players and executive worked through the protocols for how to restart the season without compromising individual safety.
However, as those discussions moved forward, another issue started to dominate the discussion: money. That baseball players and owners fight over money is a shock to exactly no one. Given that a full season of 162 games plus playoffs with millions of paying fans packing stadiums and adding billions of dollars into MLB coffers was not a realistic option, all sides figured that financial sacrifices were in order. However, the extent of those sacrifices, from players salaries to the exact financial records for each franchise have shifted the debate about resuming the game, growing to a point that there are legitimate concerns about whether a season will actually happen.
As a fan, it is extremely frustrating to see this. In certain respects, you can empathize with the players, as they felt they had a deal already (agreeing to pro-rated salaries back in March), only to see the owners ask for even greater paycuts, especially when the owners have their own agenda for keeping salaries down. For the owners, they could not anticipate the impact that COVID19 would have on the bottom line, and the increased loss of revenue from extending social distancing will hurt the cash flow, thus impacting all facets of the franchise, from player salaries to TV deals, employee benefits and indirect revenues from vendors/merchandising/etc. The economic impacts from COVID19 just suck across the board, and all are taking hits.
Yet, in a country where over 40 million have filed for unemployment, and more individuals find themselves worried about putting food on the table and what they will do when they are sick, a fight between millionaire players and billionaire owners does not engender much sympathy. Labor issues tend to get ugly fast for baseball, from lock outs and strikes, laborious court cases, and in the worst case, the cancellation of a season and a World Series. Fans want to watch games and debate win-loss records, ERAs, slash lines and WARs, not watch press conferences from lawyers and suffer through explanations about collective bargaining and labor laws. You would have thought the nightmare of the lost World Series of 1994, especially given how that season was shaping up to be an all-time classic, (Montreal's incredible run, the various challengers to the Home Run Record (then held by Maris) legit contenders to achieve a Triple Crown in both leagues, even the Astros putting themselves in legit playoff contention for the first time since 1986) would scare both sides from falling into a labor fight, but apparently, that is not the case.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the labor disputes between players and owners would come to this. With the expiration of the most recent collective bargaining agreement coming at the end of the 2021 season, both sides were prepping for a monster labor fight. The players seething at how franchises were increasing in value, but salaries generally remaining flat, and owners looking to avoid overpaying players and losing out on revenue, it promised to get ugly fast. COVID19 just moved that fight up a year and a half.
As of this writing, the battle lines resemble the impassible trench-lines of World War I. The MLBPA is on record saying that they will not accept any change to the March agreement regarding pro-rated salaries and the owners are not inclined to play any more regular season games than necessary, with some owners privately in favor of cancelling the season to cut losses. While it might make some financial sense, it would be a most regrettable self-inflicted wound. Given that other leagues, from Korean Baseball to the NBA and NFL are playing or about to start playing, MLB's intransigence looks all the more idiotic. On top of that, MLB was not in the greatest of places pre-COVID19, with the public backlash related to cheating scandals from 2 of the past 3 World Series champions, and dealing with a league where at least 1/3 of the teams are in a "tanking" mode, looking to improve the future at the expense of the present, upending the competitive balance and alienating fans. Playing now, taking the lead in helping the country's morale, could help baseball in so many ways, but at this point, MLB is missing the pitch.
Maybe if the sword that everyone was falling on was not money, but COVID19-related, if the fight was about players still wanting to have safe contact with their families vs. isolation, or if the owners were fighting about where games should be played, that some places could have fans and others couldn't, perhaps fans could understand. Instead, if money is the sticking point, then baseball risks alienating fans from a game that is already falling behind other sports. After the cancelled end of the 1994 season and the start of the 1995 season, baseball lost much of its hold on the American public. Only the Iron Man Streak of Cal Ripken and the 1998 Home Run Derby between McGwire and Sosa (a bit of a dirty one in retrospect) seemed to resurrect interest in the game. A cancelled season with no World Series for the 2nd time in 26 years could put baseball in a bigger bind, especially if only a temporary truce is established to play a 2021 season (whatever shape that will take) before another protracted labor dispute.
Admittedly, baseball does not hold the same role it did in the past. The premiere sporting event on the American calendar is not the World Series, but the Super Bowl. Basketball and hockey have greater international appeal and other sports, such as soccer, continue to gain a greater share of the American audience. Yet, there is still a place for baseball. It is the American constant, and especially in these troubled times, we are looking for some avenues of normalcy, something that baseball in the summer provides. From a selfish perspective, I want to see baseball resume and watch the Astros avenge last year's near-miss and win the World Series (in whatever shape it will take), with the added bonus of sticking it to the whiners in the Bronx and Los Angeles.
However, life has not stopped because we lack baseball. While the distraction could be very helpful now, there are bigger problems facing us. Perhaps all of this concern is unwarranted, and the labor brinkmanship by both parties will end, with saner heads prevailing and the games will resume. Yet, if both parties in the MLB dispute continue to fight over money, with the result that a season is lost, the game, as great and historic a role as it has played in America, risks becoming more insignificant. That its fall would be unnecessary and self-inflicted only makes it that much more painful to witness.