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Peter Abraham | On Baseball

Baseball risks losing fans forever if this dispute costs the season

Players Association executive director Tony Clark (left) and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
Players Association executive director Tony Clark (left) and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.AP

Kara, my 9-year-old niece, is a baseball kid. She was one of the few girls in her town who played tee-ball and for years insisted that a David Ortiz doll and Wally the Green Monster took their rightful place on top of her bed along with Olaf from “Frozen” and her beloved teddy bear.

She’s been to games at Pawtucket, and when she comes to Fenway Park with her mom, dad, and brother, she insists on visiting me in the press box because she loves the view and the free popcorn.

There are four Red Sox T-shirts, a few sweatshirts, and three hats in her closet.

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Kara was very much annoyed in 2018 when she was deemed too young to attend a World Series game at Fenway with the rest of her family. So she stayed up and watched it with her Nana.

But will she care about going the next time? That’s what I wonder.

Kara told me the other day that while she is stuck at home, she has been watching streaming video on YouTube of other people playing her favorite video game, Roblox.

“That’s what everybody does,” she said.

Everybody in her world is not everybody in my world, and not yours either. I can’t imagine watching other people play video games.

But this is what baseball is competing against and what commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark should be cognizant of as they fight over money to determine whether there will be a season this year.

That fight is turning rancorous, to a point where a deal is not assured. The next few days are important.

If baseball screws this up, 17 months will pass between the end of the 2019 World Series and the start of the 2021 season.

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That’s a long time for people to find something else to occupy their time. And they will find something.

The NBA and NHL will have crowned their 2020 champions and started the 2020-21 season. The same will be true of the English Premier League, a growing force in the United States and a significantly better television product than baseball.

Clark and Manfred should not be foolish enough to assume that people will wait 17 months and come back out of blind loyalty.

Tony Clark is the executive director of the Major League Players Association.
Tony Clark is the executive director of the Major League Players Association.Morry Gash

Baseball has the opportunity to be the first major team sport to return after the pandemic. That’s exclusive access to millions of people hungering to watch games on television. It’s the marketing opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to showcase the sport and its players like never before.

America buzzed for weeks about the Michael Jordan documentary on ESPN because people were so desperate for any kind of sports.

So many of those same people are unemployed, furloughed, or ruefully learning to live on a reduced salary. They’re fearful of a virus nobody seems to fully understand and frustrated at not being able to lead their normal lives.

If baseball’s message to them is, “Sorry, we couldn’t find a way to split up the money,” the message back will be something I can’t print.

The NHL canceled its entire 2004-05 season over a labor dispute and has since become a niche regional sport. Outside of maybe Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the best hockey players could walk the biggest streets of most American cities without being stopped for autographs.

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Hockey fans are a rabid bunch. But how many casual sports fans could name any of the Columbus Blue Jackets? That’s the danger for baseball if it goes down this path.

Negotiations between MLB and the Players Association always fall into familiar patterns. The owners offer proposals they know the players will turn down. Then both sides plant quotes in the media accusing each other of being greedy.

In another time, we’d live with it as being part of the process. But now? It’s offensive.

What the owners seem to want — that the players be partners in taking a financial hit because of the pandemic — is a loser.

The players aren’t partners when the teams haul in extra money from concerts or make sweetheart deals for publicly funded ballparks. Why should they be partners when times are bad?

The Steinbrenner family has owned the Yankees since 1973. Jerry Reinsdorf purchased the White Sox in 1981. John Henry and Tom Werner picked up the Sox in 2002.

It may take them a few years, but they’ll recoup their losses from the pandemic. Players have a finite number of years they can earn. Find a way to make it work.

There is always a way, especially given the consequences. Don’t give a generation of kids like Kara a reason to stop caring. You’ll never get them back.


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.