I’ve always missed baseball in the times when we expected it to be there, when we were used to it being there and it was absent.
When Major League Baseball players went on strike on June 12, 1981, I was 11 years old and could not comprehend . . . well, any of it. That there would be a summer without the Red Sox. That baseball players would decide not to play. (I didn’t quite grasp the tactics of collective bargaining then.) That the heroes of my baseball cards were dressed in suits rather than Red Sox jerseys in the sports section of the Globe.
The strike lasted 50 days, and 712 games were lost. Every lost game was missed. I could not have been happier when it came back on the final day of that July.
When players went on strike on Aug. 12, 1994, I was two weeks away from leaving scenic Orono, Maine, for Concord, N.H., and my first real-life, on-my-own job. The Red Sox were terrible, save for an occasionally interested Roger Clemens and the promise of Mo Vaughn. I still loved the game almost as much as I did when I was 11. I wanted the Montreal Expos to win the World Series. It was my first year of addiction to rotisserie baseball. I was sure Aaron Sele was going to be the next great Red Sox ace.
The strike did not end until the following March, lasting 232 days. The ’94 World Series was a victim of the players’ and owners’ distaste for each other and, in some cases, unchecked greed. Lost were 938 games. Every lost game was missed. Lonely and overwhelmed in my town, I could not have been happier when it returned, after an absurd flirtation with using replacement players, that spring.
When the sports world shut down March 12 of this year in those early hours of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports certainly weren’t the first thing on my mind, but I knew I’d miss baseball as a companion as we navigated through these scary times. I wanted to see whether the Red Sox were as mediocre as they seemed, or whether Chaim Bloom, who was part of the brain trust in Tampa Bay that had a knack for pulling off surprising successes, knew something about this roster that we didn’t.
But as I sit here writing this on June 9, as the NBA and NHL prepare to return, and the NFL charges ahead stubbornly, just as it always does, baseball can’t get its act together to conjure up a reasonable approach to a season that might already be in restart mode if the owners and players weren’t in a gross public duel to see who can come across as more greedy and tone-deaf.
It’s been so unseemly, so ugly, so just plain stupid, from Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt’s claim that baseball isn’t that profitable to Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s ain’t-pitching-with-a-pay-cut comments, that this lifelong baseball fan, who has stayed loyal to the game despite the destructive tendencies of those that run it, really doesn’t care if it comes back this year.
The players propose a 114-game schedule. The owners propose a 72-game schedule. The owners threaten to implement a 48-game schedule. The players want their full salaries, prorated. The owners want to prorate the salaries and then cut them further.
Back and forth they go, the negotiations sounding more and more like petty bickering by sides that have little appreciation for and no trust of each other.
This is what baseball is doing now in the United States, at this still-uncertain phase of a pandemic, with more than 110,000 dead, roughly 40 million unemployed, and chaos all over the land. They’re bickering over billions of dollars.
They’re so focused on the bottom line that they’re either indifferent or oblivious to the fact that they’re driving away the fans of my era, the ones that stuck with them through past labor disputes and all of the nonsense they inflicted upon us. They’re losing the last generation that ever knew baseball as the National Pastime, the last generation that cares about the game in a way that those that run the sport unfailingly take for granted.
If the players and owners had gotten their acts together and come to an agreement a few weeks ago, baseball could have had the spotlight for once. It could have been the first sport back on our televisions and in our collective consciousness. Maybe it could have even returned by July 4, and owned that month while the NBA and NHL took baby steps toward their restarts. The chance was there. And they botched it like a career designated hitter trying to play shortstop.
Baseball is never again going to be more popular than football, but it had a chance to regain some footing by being the first sport to return at a time in which we longed for any live events. Now, it’s uncertain whether there will be a season at all.
While common sense suggests the players’ union and the owners will begrudgingly agree to a deal at the last possible minute, you really don’t know with these guys. They might just burn it all down and cancel the season out of spite for each other.
And then what is baseball after that, when it returns in 2021? A niche sport? One that registers in a similar way to hockey in the mind of American sports fans?
Or a sport that no one cares about as much as they once did, in part because the sport has proven time and again it doesn’t care about its fans?
I blame the owners for this more than I do the players, who have a short window to maximize their earnings and will be the ones making the sacrifices and taking the risks. But it’s staggering how they’re almost all guilty of a lack of cooperation, a lack of urgency, a lack of good faith, a lack of awareness that this is not the time for petty grievances.
Get it together. Strike a deal. And play the games.
Because if you don’t get this straightened out soon, even lifers like me aren’t going to care when you finally do.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.