Empty ballparks for more than a year? It’s the tactical equivalent of sticking your face in front of a Randy Johnson fastball. Players will lose jobs, fans will lose the pennant races and the game will lose fans. But the negotiators are still playing chicken, hoping the other side’ll blink.
The players are understandably reluctant to amend the hare-brained system that enabled them to earn an annual average salary of US$2.4 million for throwing and hitting and running around the diamond. The owners, who agreed to the contract terms that enabled those salaries, now want concessions like revenue sharing and luxury taxes on the highest payrolls. League income, about $3.5 billion in 2001, is so unevenly distributed that only a handful of rich teams can afford the nine-figure payrolls required to seriously compete for World Series titles. Supporters in two dozen also-ran cities can dream, but realistically, they have no shot. No wonder they’re tuning out.
There are no good guys in this fight. The players demand far more than their skills and drawing power deserve, and the dopey owners give it to them. Tom Hicks, billionaire boss of the Texas Rangers, set the record for fiscal dim-wittedness in baseball — quite an achievement given the competition — when in 2000 he signed shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a 10- year, $252-million contract. That’s a ton of take-home pay for Enron executives, let alone ballplayers, yet with A-Rod in the lineup, the Rangers finished last in their division in 2001 and are last again this season. And at the ballpark that George W. Bush got taxpayers to build when he was managing partner of the Rangers, attendance is down about 16 per cent this year. Which recalls a variant of the old joke: Question: how do you make a small fortune? Answer: start a baseball team with a large fortune.
Sounds dire, and it is. The last strike devastated some franchises, especially Toronto, where it arrested the Blue Jays’ enormous momentum from two straight World Series triumphs, and cut deeply into what had been massive fan support at SkyDome. The lesson is to never let people disconnect from your sport, because they’ll surely find something else to do.
But the union and league don’t seem to get that, any more than they get the problems plaguing their product on the field. They have to crack down on steroids because hints of abuse undermine every new batting record. And could someone please slap modern hitters around for slowing the game to a crawl? During at-bats, they spend so much time adjusting their equipment and digging into their stances that you could call out for pizza — and have it delivered — between pitches. Do they think we like to watch them re-fasten their batting gloves and adjust their jocks? If golf can have penalties for slow play, so can baseball.
Long-term, though, the sport’s biggest worry is irrelevence. There’s a sense that its time has passed and that no matter what happens, baseball will lose much of its audience and become a second-tier professional sport. The game rose to its remarkable prominence in the early radio days. Fans didn’t watch the game; they had it described to them by announcers who, thanks to the meandering pace of play, had time to set up each pitch. In that way, the sport and the medium were a perfect fit, and a game on the radio is still a wonderful companion when you’re in the car or reading at night.
Kids, though, don’t listen to games on radio. They watch TV, and play electronic versions of various sports on computers and video-gaming platforms. And increasingly, they prefer basketball, hockey and football as spectator sports because those games have more energy and pace and are better suited to the tube. Advocates are quick to remind that millions of kids still play baseball and softball in North America, and that’s true. But soccer has huge participation rates, and that doesn’t seem to do anything for its North American TV ratings and attendance. Baseball will always be a great game, but it seems destined to be less important to each new generation. And another strike may only be speeding up the inevitable.