At stake are millions -- no, make that billions -- of dollars. You might, if you want, call it a phantom war, because nothing much has happened or is going to happen -- if it does happen at all -- until the spring, when the 2022 season is scheduled to begin.
Commence firing! Well, not really. There is nothing to fire at -- yet.
But the long awaited war has officially begun between baseball and its archenemy, which is, of course, itself. Call it a civil war, though there is not much about it that is civil between the opposing sides, which are management and the players' union. At stake are millions -- no, make that billions -- of dollars. You might, if you want, call it a phantom war, because nothing much has happened or is going to happen -- if it does happen at all -- until the spring, when the 2022 season is scheduled to begin. Until then, both sides have agreed to disagree, and that's that.
Wars are generally a whole lot easier to get into than get out of. When the time comes to close down the hostilities in this war, it might not be so easy to do, opposing sides might get so caught up in it that they don't even remember what started it in the first place. They should be natural allies, not enemies.
The public reaction to all this has been one massive yawn. Not many of us seem to care what happens.
There was a time, 70 years ago, when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were gigantic celebrities, as famous as even the biggest movie stars of the day. Now the biggest names in baseball do not even hold a candle to the star-power of athletes from other sports, which hardly even counted back then; people like Tom Brady of the NFL or the NBA's LeBron James. What used to be known as "the national pastime" might more accurately be called "the national passed time." What happened?
What happened is that baseball stopped paying attention. Baseball, like other sports and the theater, are entertainments, meant to appeal to the paying customers, for whose money there is ever-growing competition. You've got to get them to show up and then keep them coming back. I love baseball and have for all my life but, to be honest about it, I don't love it quite as much as I used to. I long for the days when base hits outnumbered strike outs, when starting pitchers were asked to go longer than five innings, and when games took less than three hours or more to play. It's just not nearly as much fun as it used to be.
When was the last time you drove by a ballfield filled with sandlot kids, eager to play on their own? They're busy choosing sides. They're making up their own rules on the fly to account for discrepancies in the number of players. How many kids do you know who love -- really love -- the game? Not many, is my guess. There was a time -- and I lived through it myself -- when every kid loved baseball.
The most talented ballplayer of this generation is generally conceded to be Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. Few, if any of us would even recognize him if we saw him walking down the street. Imagine the crowds that Sandy Koufax would draw if this were the 60s and he showed up on the streets of Boston, three thousand miles away from where he played and in a totally different league from the Red Sox. The town would go bonkers because baseball mattered back then. That's how far the game has slipped, and the slide is continuing. Football and basketball have long since overtaken it, and soccer is beginning to catch up.
But the current dustup between MLB and the players' union might give baseball the chance to drag itself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Maybe a pitching clock could be instituted. Maybe games could take less than four hours to play.
It's a 19th-century game, and it needs modernizing, but it's a great game, and it deserves to be saved. All the crazy contracts that have been handed out lately are not the answer. Some guy of whom you've hardly heard pulling down millions and millions of dollars to hit .240 doesn't necessarily add to the entertainment level of the finished product.
The problem with the current stand-off between MLB and the union is that neither side can afford to win. They need each other too much. The union can't prosper unless the owners keep making money hand over fist, and the owners can't pile up the dough unless the players are doing the same thing. The money is just too good. The owners of the Red Sox paid a record $700 million dollars less than 20 years ago to buy the team and 80 percent of its cable network. They have since parlayed that investment into a giant holding company that owns a major international soccer team worth at least as much as the Red Sox, which is several billion dollars, an interest in a NASCAR racing team, several other entities, and has now bought the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League. Sounds to me like they've received a pretty good return on their investment. Good for them, I say. The players, too, have spawned many multi-millionaires. Three hundred million dollar guaranteed contracts, while not yet common-place, are not unheard of, either.
With all that money floating around there must be enough left over to designate for the good of the game. Some sort of special commission could be formed to make the hard decisions with which neither side will be happy but will, in the long run, be for the good of all. Baseball has held our attention for far more than a century, from the days long preceding the age of Cy Young and his contemporaries, through the time of Ty Cobb, the age of the great Babe Ruth, continuing beyond Williams and DiMaggio, and even up to and including Mookie Betts and Max Scherzer. It has to be saved from itself. Hopefully it's not too late, but the ship has been taking on water for a long time now. This is the time to act. In fact, it's long overdue.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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