Day by day the harsh reality seems more possible: Baseball, paused by pandemic, imperiled by petulance, might not be back this season.
Even if the game avoids that direst of outcomes, there might not be anybody left to care.
By hardening stances on both sides, by continuing to squabble over prorated salaries amid a 48-, 50-, or 80-game season, owners on one side and players on the other have managed to put their game in more danger than the unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak did.
At the corner of this bizarre confluence — a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic crosses an all-too-familiar labor dispute — baseball risks losing the last acre of real estate it holds in our sporting hearts. By the time teams could even get back on the field, the engine of professional sports will have started without them, humming along with plenty of playoff drama, leaving baseball at the starting line, idled by its own inanity.
It really is hard to believe that a threat from within the game might ultimately accomplish what the external menace of COVID-19 could not. It is a pox on their houses, irrefutable, undeniable evidence of a sport not just ready, but seemingly willing, to damage itself beyond repair. The ongoing, odious, selfish, tone-deaf, return-to-play negotiations are almost beyond description, and they are most definitely beyond comprehension. Every side in this debate has been rightly excoriated, not only for such intransigent positions, but also for so much antagonism spilling into public discourse.
They are debating dollars, but displaying no sense.
And while they fiddle, their partners in professional sports take huge steps forward in returning to action. The NBA is in the lead among major team sports, its Disney dream ratified via conference call during the week. But the NHL has also made progress toward a revamped playoff format, with players slowly working their way back into shape. The NFL is still targeting a normal fall return, its absolute belief in its own dominance unshaken by civil or economic unrest.
But that’s not all.
As European soccer leagues and Korean baseball teams provided a blueprint for return, US sports began their post-pandemic awakening. MLS has a plan to play. The NWSL intends to be the first American sports league back. The WNBA proposed a shortened season. We’ve seen NASCAR races and UFC fights. There are plans for a small tennis tournament, and the PGA remains on track with its readjusted schedule. College campuses are opening doors to student-athletes, and most major conferences seem to think they will fashion some iteration of a fall season.
After months of famine, the feast is coming.
Stanley Cup playoffs, where the Bruins get a chance to erase last year’s Game 7 heartbreak. An NBA postseason, where LeBron James gets a chance to win a title with a third franchise. A Masters tournament where Tiger Woods can defend his title. Huge story lines all, with high stakes, high drama and, presumably, high interest. For a sports audience starved of its favorite distractions, the return of the games, under any circumstance, will be welcomed. Their butts may not be allowed in the seats, but their eyes will be drawn to the screens.
All of which begs the question: Where will baseball fit?
Or more troubling still: Will anyone really care anymore?
The battle for eyeballs will be fierce. Rather than riding in with the jubilant answer to this collective plea to get back to the games, baseball, at best, would slink into view. Baseball, at best, will have to reckon with its miserable failure to lead the way, to explain the missed opportunity to be a force for optimism and hope. Nope. The disdain this ongoing fight shows for fans is real; the potential consequence just as real.
How sad. At its core, baseball is beautiful. For so many, it was the one that fed our initial sports obsession, memories of pennant races and home run trots alive in our rearview mirrors, boxes of baseball cards and bubble gum hidden away in the attics of our minds (and houses). The very nature of the sport, wherein individual expertise melds together for team success, is magic. Mano-a-mano pitcher versus batter moments in the foreground, intricate strategy decisions in the background, all of them shifting into poetic motion once the ball is in play. It’s the only sport where the defense has the ball in its hands, where no clock determines the end of the game, where managers still dress like the players, and historical tradition dates back more than a century.
But baseball ceded its position as the national pastime long ago, passed in popularity by the NFL, in relevancy by the NBA, and embarrassed by just about everyone else in reading the room. How else do you explain this billionaire versus millionaire battle being waged before our eyes? Owners did not even present a counterproposal to the players’ 114-game prorated salary plan, and their idea of paying 100 percent of a prorated salary for a 50-game season costs them the same amount as the players’ idea of 60 percent of a prorated salary at 82 games, meaning the owners really haven’t moved off their amount.
In case you missed what MLBPA executive director Tony Clark thought of it, beyond his simple admission the players “resoundingly rejected” any additional concessions, he described the owners’ position as a “threat [that] came in response to an Association proposal aimed at charting a path forward … Rather than engage, the league replied it will shorten the season unless Players agree to further salary reductions.”
The staredown is on.
Meanwhile, the sports buffet is about to open. There are prime entrees everywhere. Baseball? Content to play the part of wilted salad, passed on by discerning diners in favor of something better.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.