Major League Baseball’s return to play in 2020 after the start of the season was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic offered fans a view inside the acrimonious relationship between the sport’s 30 owners and players’ union.
Both sides bickered in the court of public opinion for months on how best to play and split up a smaller pool of revenue with fewer games and little or no fans in attendance. Opening day was delayed more than once. The stalemate ended with commissioner Rob Manfred mandating a 60-game season, neither camp pleased, and the stage set for an even bigger battle when the collective bargaining agreement expired this month, resulting in a lockout and the game’s first work stoppage in 26 years. .
Present-day drama could cause fans, battered from 2020’s stops and starts or last week’s open letter from the commissioner, to become even more cynical about a sport that consistently cedes the spotlight to others. But the current labor strife is not a reason to panic – yet. And the lockout could ultimately end up being a net positive for baseball, at least according to Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, who has written about baseball’s labor and economics for decades and has consulted for the MLBPA in the past.
Let him explain.
“I would say if the union and the owners could come to an agreement sometime in the next six weeks without a lot of public acrimony, then the lockout might actually have had a positive force,” Zimbalist told USA TODAY Sports last week. “Why would I say that? I think one of the things that’s happening now is, baseball’s getting a lot of attention. Baseball’s getting a lot of discussion it wouldn’t have gotten.”
Zimbalist was speaking in the aftermath of a flurry of free-agent signings that preceded the deadline under the former CBA, and Zimbalist argued that concentrated news coverage wouldn’t have existed.
Of course, Zimablist believed MLB to be in a weaker position during the last work stoppage that resulted in the loss of games. During the work stoppage in 1994-95, which resulted in the World Series being canceled and the following opening day being delayed, he co-founded the United Baseball League, a planned alternative major league. The 10-team circuit (one in Puerto Rico, one in Mexico and one in Canada) installed Curt Flood as commissioner but folded without playing a game in 1996, as it missed its window to launch before MLB returned in April 1995 with a shortened 144-game season.
On his podcast “Toeing The Slab,” former pitcher David Cone, who represented American League players during that strike, said striking through the World Series sealed how fans viewed players in the disagreement.
“When we got back on the field, we all got booed,” Cone said.
Fans turned their backs on the game, and a steroid-fueled, home-run-bashing era revitalized the game – and baseball may have used all of its tricks last time.
Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, Cone’s National League counterpart at that time, joined him on the podcast and recalled:
“It was tough on us, it was tough on the game, it was tough on fans. Everybody lost. There’s no way to really quantify anybody winning, because I think at the end of the day, the game was hurt and it was hurt badly. I think the silver lining is that 25 years later, and we’re having the first work stoppage since then.”
At this stage of the current lockout, Zimbalist argued, it’s too early for baseball to have caused itself any significant harm in the eyes of fans or public opinion.
“It’s not premature to ask the question,” Zimbalist said. “but it is premature to assert that baseball’s been hurt.
“They have a way to emerge out of this that won’t be so bad.”
The two sides last met on Dec. 1 and it is unknown when the next negotiating sessions will occur.
Having the lockout wrapped by mid-January, so a somewhat normal offseason of signings and traders could lead into pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in mid-February, would be the easiest way. With a presumably normal spring training and start to the regular season, the lockout would be a footnote, Zimbalist said.
That is wishful thinking, though.
Now that the owners have “locked out” the players for a week, fans find themselves as the biggest contingent of the “completely innocent third-parties,” which includes other types such as stadium workers, says Penn State law professor Stephen F. Ross, the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Sports in Society
“If you’re a (passive) sports fan, and it’s just ‘billionaires vs. millionaires,’ what do you care, you just want to watch your baseball – you’re being harmed and there’s no benefit to you,” he explained to USA TODAY Sports.
On the other hand, a passionate fan who had a sincere interest in players receiving concessions that benefits them, or seeks significant changes to the game, may be willing to sacrifice (or wants the players to sacrifice) part of the season in pursuit of certain results separate from the money debate.
The institution of a universal designated hitter is one example of this. The composition and viscosity of the baseball itself, the amount of time allowed between pitches and the number of players on the active roster are all potential variables in those types of discussions, Ross said.
Changes that speed up or shorten the game is expected to be another negotiating point in this CBA that fans will be keep an eye on. Zimablist noted that in an increasingly online world with a public that has shortening attention spans, demanding a minimum of three hours of concentration is nearly impossible.
“The current game is set up not to really serve the fans,” Ross said.
Ross pointed out that a labor situation that ends with a delayed spring training – or no spring training at – will impact the tourist economies of Arizona and Florida, as well as the seasonal employees in those areas and the fans who regularly attend or make travel plans around the exhibitions.
“The other question for fans is the same question that owners and players, I think, face,” Ross said. “Which is, how much of the lockout are you willing to tolerate to see some changes in the game?
“And to what extent is it about changes that will affect the fans?”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will MLB lockout be a ‘positive force’? Baseball is in the spotlight