ATLANTA — Major League Baseball and the Players Association publicly bickered over money during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
As thousands died and millions lost their jobs, they fought by proxy, both sides using anonymous sources to make their points through the media.
It was disgraceful, cringe-worthy behavior that people in both camps came to regret over time because it was such a bad look for the sport.
So let’s take it as a positive that negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement have been going on for months in what has largely been a news blackout.
That may not be great for people in my business, but if the league and the union can manage to conduct negotiations without creating a public spectacle, maybe they can strike a deal before the start of spring training.
That didn’t seem possible a year ago when the animus between the league and the union was worse than it had been in decades.
I’m probably naïve in believing the sides can avoid a lockout. But they surely must understand how damaging it would be to the sport.
A lockout or a strike won’t kill baseball. It has survived labor wars before and in recent years managed to overcome the steroid era, the Astros cheating scandal, and Alex Rodriguez becoming a television personality.
But a lockout or a strike would further define baseball as a regional sport, one popular in certain parts of the country but fading away in others.
When the Red Sox were in Houston for the ALCS, I stayed at a hotel across the street from Minute Maid Park. On the eve of Game 6, I had dinner in the bar with a colleague and we had to ask the server to put the NLCS game on one of the four televisions. Three were on football games and the other on a soccer game.
We were about 30 seconds away from Minute Maid Park and nobody thought to put on a baseball playoff game.
But baseball has a chance to regain some territory. Young stars such as Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rafael Devers, and others have NBA-type appeal if marketed properly.
This winter should be about the Red Sox working with Devers on an extension, the Blue Jays building a team to get over the top with Vladdy Jr., and wondering if Soto can win the Triple Crown.
If it’s lawyers arguing with other lawyers, everybody loses.
The money matters. Baseball is a big business, and the players are right to be diligent about getting their fair share. But the next CBA should be about more than how to divvy up television money and fixing the flawed arbitration process.
It’s a chance to improve the quality of the game by tweaking the rules to increase the action on the field and the pace of play.
One easy fix would be to put a cap on how many pitchers can be on a roster. That would force teams to develop starters who can pitch more than five innings.
A pitch clock needs to be tried at some point along with encouraging more stolen bases by limiting pickoff throws. That would push teams to draft more athletes as opposed to single-minded sluggers.
Starting extra innings with a runner on second base worked — although let’s wait for the 11th inning — and seven-inning doubleheaders are appealing. The universal DH makes perfect sense.
The aesthetic of the game matters. You should feel compelled to pay attention, not duty-bound to wait 25 seconds until the pitcher has checked under his cap to decide what pitch to throw.
The sides also should enact rules to discourage teams from aggressively tanking to accumulate high draft picks. No other sport tolerates this to the degree baseball does.
The owners and players need to balance their short-term financial concerns with how the game will look over the next five or 10 years. Adhering to tradition, once baseball’s strength, has become its biggest fault.
I want to believe Rob Manfred, Tony Clark, and all their lieutenants care more about the sport than winning the negotiations.
Everybody is going to get paid. But the fans are owed something, too.