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Sunday baseball notes

Baseball will survive, but its prominence continues to take a dive

A practice field at the Cincinnati Reds' spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., sat empty this week as the lockout continued.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The longer the MLB lockout continues, the more toxic my inbox becomes.

“This really is a disaster,” wrote Michael.

“Sad to see baseball go the way of the dinosaurs,” said Hector.

“Why should I buy tickets?” asked Ray.

“Nobody cares about baseball anymore,” opined one anonymous emailer.

Respectfully, I don’t believe any of you.

Google “baseball is dead” and you get 1.89 million results. This has been going on for decades.

Baseball was declared dead in the 1970s when players won the right to become free agents. It wasn’t.

The coroner was summoned again when the 1994 World Series was canceled because of the players’ strike. It took a few years, but baseball got back to normal.

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Then it was widespread steroid use that dealt a supposedly fatal blow early this century. But that wasn’t the case, either.

Now baseball supposedly has another cleat in the grave thanks to the latest labor impasse. It will survive like it always has. The season will start and people will most definitely come, Ray.

The same Red Sox fans who were crushed by the trade of Mookie Betts were captivated by the Wild Card Game against the Yankees 20 months later.

Baseball doesn’t have to fear death. But it should be terrified of creeping irrelevance.

That spring training this year did not start on time is another example of how blind the people who run baseball have become to the outside world. They take too much for granted.

But even if a collective bargaining agreement is reached and the regular season starts as scheduled March 31, baseball is marching down the wrong path.

The NFL and NBA are far better television products with younger, more diverse fan bases. Both sports do a masterful job of marketing their star players and have become entrenched in popular culture.

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Baseball is dropping closer to the second tier where hockey, soccer, and other sports with regional popularity exist. The longer the lockout continues, the wider that gap will grow.

For fans of the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and other popular teams, it’s hard to notice. Games routinely sell out, payrolls are high, and the local television ratings flourish. But it’s a constant struggle in many markets. Baseball doesn’t work in Florida. The Rays and Marlins have abysmal attendance to a point where Tampa Bay hatched a plan to play half its home games in Montreal. (The other owners rejected it.)

Baseball really is dying in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the two latest teams trying to lose their way to the top by accumulating high draft picks.

In Atlanta, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Seattle, and Toronto, the local MLS franchises draw big crowds and command nearly equal amounts of attention.

Even the flagship teams are experiencing a new reality. There were once 10 media outlets that covered the Red Sox on the road. Only three regularly did last season and one of them was MLB.com.

There were three times as many reporters from the Boston area who covered the Patriots’ joint practice sessions and exhibition game with the Eagles in Philadelphia last August as there were in New York at the same time where the Sox played the Yankees in a weekend series.

Three times as many for practices and an exhibition game.

Then there are the aesthetics. Baseball’s devotion to data has led to a game that moves at a plodding pace with increasingly less action.

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Smart executives have done their job well, mining the numbers to create small advantages that could win a game. That’s their job, to win.

But if winning is a product of reducing the game to a series of strikeouts, walks, and ground outs into a shift with an occasional home run, who do you expect to watch? Or to want to play?

Game 3 of the World Series, a 2-0 victory for the Braves against the Astros, lasted 3 hours, 24 minutes, and 11 pitchers were used. There were 68 plate appearances and 25 of them ended with a walk or a strikeout.

Should baseball return on time, the game still has plenty of work to do.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

That improving the game as an entertainment product hasn’t been part of the current labor negotiations is difficult to understand. Any financial gains the players or owners make now won’t matter if baseball is a niche sport in 10 years.

The pandemic provided a laboratory for what will draw viewers. There are more streaming services available with increasingly better content. First-run films sometimes show up in your living room right away. European soccer matches, which always end in less than two hours and have no commercials, are growing in popularity.

People came back to baseball before because where else were they going? Now baseball has more competition than ever.

It’s also notable that as part of the CBA talks, the owners have proposed having the ability to cut the number of minor leaguers per organization from 180 to 150 as soon as 2023. The owners also have cut the draft from 40 rounds to 20, and limited signing bonus payments.

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To what degree fewer — and less lucrative — opportunities to play professional baseball will have on the amateur levels won’t be known for years. But the effect certainly won’t be positive.

Still, baseball will survive because it always does.

MLB has canceled spring training games through March 4, although there are plans for the sides to meet every day starting Monday in hopes of reaching a deal. Several owners will be personally involved and that could be what finally breaks the impasse.

There will be an agreement eventually and most of the same fans who are angry now will watch the games when they do.

But how long will that continue if the real issues aren’t solved?

CATCHING ON

Sox in transition behind the plate?

As Christian Vázquez enters the last year of his deal, who will be the Red Sox' catcher of the future?Elsa/Getty

ESPN, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and The Athletic have released their top 100 prospects for 2022 and there are eight catchers whose average grade lands them in the top 35.

“You’re seeing more and more good athletes catch because they know there’s a demand,” an amateur scout said. “There’s more to come.”

Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman is the top prospect in the game at any position. The other highly regarded catchers are Francisco Álvarez (Mets), Diego Cartaya (Dodgers), Henry Davis (Pirates), M.J. Melendez (Royals), Gabriel Moreno (Blue Jays), Keibert Ruiz (Nationals), and Tyler Soderstrom (Athletics).

As Christian Vázquez enters his free agent season with Kevin Plawecki as his backup, the Red Sox are trying to determine their catcher of the future.

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Connor Wong started three games during the team’s COVID outbreak and impressed the coaching staff with his poise behind the plate and ability to work with the pitchers. But Wong turns 26 in May and remains behind Vázquez and Plawecki on the depth chart. He needs to make his move.

Ronaldo Hernández, 24, has power and a strong arm, but teams question why the Rays traded him to the Sox a year ago for fringe relievers Chris Mazza and Jeffrey Springs.

Go deeper into the system and Kole Cottam (25 in May) and Jaxx Groshans (24 in July) have made progress. There’s also 2021 draft pick Nathan Hickey (22) along with Enderso Lira, an 18-year-old who received $850,000 to sign out of Venezuela a year ago.

Within the organization, there were some questions last fall about picking up Vázquez’s $7 million option given his poor season at the plate and the preference of some pitchers to work with Plawecki. But Vazquez’s defense and durability couldn’t be ignored.

The coming season will give the Sox some direction. As Vazquez approaches free agency, Wong and the others will have an opportunity to show that they’re the future.

The Sox are poised to make a run at Japanese slugger Seiya Suzuki.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

A few other observations on the Red Sox:

▪ Several teams believe the Sox are lined up to make a move on Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki when the lockout finally ends. Suzuki is committed to playing in the majors, having decided not to remain with the Hiroshima Carp.

Suzuki could have remained in Japan and been posted again next season.

Suzuki, a righthanded hitter with pop, would join Alex Verdugo and Jackie Bradley Jr. as outfield options with Kiké Hernández having more flexibility to play second base.

With the universal DH expected to be instituted, J.D. Martinez may not be using his glove very often.

▪ MLB’s decision to cancel spring training games through March 4 cost the Sox nine games, counting the exhibition against Northeastern. Manager Alex Cora and the major league coaches are in Fort Myers, Fla., hoping camp will open soon. If not, minor league camp starts March 6.

Meanwhile, Chris Sale has been hosting workouts at his old school, Florida Gulf Coast University, with Matt Barnes and Nick Pivetta among those attending.

▪ Remember Felix Doubront? The lefthander was a key member of the 2013 Red Sox, then was out of the big leagues two years later. Now 34, he has signed to pitch in Mexico after spending last year in Taiwan. He also has played in Korea.

▪ The Red Sox were well represented at the Super Bowl. Ohio native Kyle Schwarber was on hand rooting for the Bengals. Bradley, who grew up a fan of the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, made a quick trip to California and saw his team win.

AFTERSHOCKS

New drug scandal rocks the game

That former Angels communications director Eric Kay faces at least 20 years in prison after being found guilty of distributing the drugs that led to the death of lefthander Tyler Skaggs in 2019 is only the beginning of what could be an ugly chapter for baseball.

Kay, 47, will be sentenced in June. By then, MLB is expected to be deep into an investigation of the Angels.

While on a road trip, the 27-year-old Skaggs died in a hotel room outside of Dallas after mixing oxycodone, fentanyl, and alcohol.

Five teammates admitted to drug use on the stand. Another, former Red Sox righthander Garrett Richards, acknowledged sending Kay payments. Free-agent pitcher Matt Harvey was granted immunity to testify against Kay and acknowledged giving drugs to Skaggs at different times. He could be suspended for at least 60 games once the new CBA is reached.

The Angels already are facing civil lawsuits filed by the Skaggs family. Other team officials could be held accountable for Kay’s actions, which began in 2017. How could multiple players be using a team staffer as their drug dealer and some member of the coaching or athletic training staff not know?

Meanwhile, what was former Mets manager Terry Collins thinking? He did what amounted to a media tour in New York talking about Harvey’s testimony and the pitcher’s tenure with the team. He revealed that Harvey sought counseling from the team for his issues and discussed suicide.

Collins was unprofessional to break Harvey’s confidence no matter how much time has passed. Baseball has come a long way in the last 15 years in providing mental-health assistance to players and a foundation of that has been confidentiality.

ETC.

Zimmerman calls it a career

Ryan Zimmerman retires as the Nationals' franchise leader in most offensive statistical categories.John McDonnell/The Washington Post

Hats off to Ryan Zimmerman, who retired after 17 years in the Nationals organization.

You had a feeling that was coming last Oct. 3 when Nationals manager Davey Martinez took Zimmerman out of a 5-5 game against the Red Sox in the eighth inning so he could get an ovation from the crowd. The Sox players and coaches came out of the dugout to join in as Zimmerman waved and brushed back tears.

Zimmerman leaves with the most games played, at-bats, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, and RBIs in franchise history.

But he’s not going far. Zimmerman, 37, has a five-year personal services contract with the team that will involve working with minor league players.

Two other statistics that mark Zimmerman’s career:

▪ He was drafted on June 7, 2005, a first-round pick out of the University of Virginia, and made his major league debut that Sept. 1. That’s not unheard of, but it’s very unusual, especially for a hitter.

▪ Zimmerman finished his career with 11 regular-season walkoff home runs. Only nine other players have had that many and all are in the Hall of Fame, except for Albert Pujols.

Jim Thome had 13. Pujols, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, and Babe Ruth are at 12. Zimmerman, David Ortiz, and Tony Pérez had 11.

Extra bases

Think the Mets’ Buck Showalter was eager to manage again? He’s been in Port St. Lucie, Fla., since Feb. 7 waiting for the lockout to end. He told reporters he spotted a panther prowling around the back fields . . . Providence College’s men’s basketball team is 21-3. One of its key players is forward Justin Minaya, the son of longtime major league executive Omar Minaya. Justin, who went to high school in New Jersey, is a transfer from South Carolina and at PC as a graduate student . . . Here’s an original idea for a baseball book. “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66″ traces baseball’s place along the fabled highway via more than 250 photographs by Jean Fruth and stories from players assembled by Jeff Idelson. Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, George Brett, and Thome contributed first-person accounts, along with Alex Bregman, Ryan Howard, and Adam LaRoche. The book is scheduled to be published in April. Idelson, a West Newton native, is the former president of the Hall of Fame . . . Happy birthday to Derek Lilliquist, who is 56. The lefthander was a 15th-round draft pick out of high school by the Red Sox in 1984 and decided to attend the University of Georgia. That was a wise move as he was the sixth overall pick of the 1987 draft by the Braves. Lilliquist bounced around and signed with the Sox as a free agent for the 1995 season. He didn’t pitch well and was released in July. Ryan Sweeney is 37. He spent the ill-fated 2012 season with the Sox and had a .675 OPS in 63 games.


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