Baseball Avoided a Lost Season. But Bigger Threats May Lie Ahead.

The tremors are over. When major league players stick their cleats into the dirt for training camp next week, the ground below them will be still. The invisible threat to their season — the coronavirus — is still out there, of course. But the game is coming back in an unprecedented form. It will be a 60-game dash to October, not the usual cross-country, 162-game slog.

“If you said in spring training: ‘We’re going to have every team tied for first on July 24,’ you’d be like, ‘Sign me up for that pennant race,’” said Jim Duquette, the former Mets general manager. “Basically, that’s what we have. We’re starting a week before the normal trade deadline and saying, ‘OK, here you go, guys, last 60 games, go get ’em!’ That has a chance to be really exciting.”

For fans, that may be the best way to approach the new season: Erase the recent past, embrace the next few months and, by all means, don’t look too far ahead.

After all, Commissioner Rob Manfred finally imposed the schedule — which begins on July 23 — on the players’ union this week after the sides had failed to reach a negotiated agreement over three months of unrealistic proposals and harsh public statements.

Manfred’s decision meant the league avoided the unseemliness of losing a season to economic squabbling amid a pandemic, but the unilateral resolution reflected much deeper problems for the sport. Few of those issues can be resolved without repairing a deep chasm between the union and ownership, a schism that could soon swallow up the sport.

“I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve experienced, in any baseball labor negotiation,” said Fred Claire, the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1987 to 1998. “With the letters that went back and forth, with the language that was used, with the total display of lack of trust — it was terrible.

“We’ve got to learn from that, because there’s a big hurdle coming, and it can’t be denied.”

That hurdle is negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires in December 2021. The current C.B.A. is a clear victory for the owners, who have managed to keep the average salary virtually stagnant — around $4.4 million — since it was ratified in December 2016, despite rising industry revenue.

That dynamic has increasingly loomed over the major leagues for the last few seasons. It explains why the union was wary of giving any ground — even amid a pandemic — and why many observers fear the end of the current C.B.A. could bring the first work stoppage since the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series and devastated the sport’s momentum for years.

Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press
Credit…Morry Gash/Associated Press

Manfred and his deputy, Dan Halem, have struggled to forge a productive relationship with Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ union, and Bruce Meyer, his top negotiator who was hired in 2018.

Manfred, whose reputation suffered over his handling of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal this winter, further strained his credibility this month with contradictory tactics — guaranteeing a season on June 10 and threatening cancellation five days later. Clark fired back in a statement, saying the players were “disgusted.”

The root of the disagreement was a March deal, formed soon after the virus hit North America, in which the players agreed to take prorated salaries this season as long as they got service time for canceled games. Had they authorized further pay cuts, the owners would have agreed to a longer schedule.

When Manfred flew to Arizona last week to meet with Clark, a former All-Star first baseman, it produced yet another disagreement: Manfred announced that he and Clark had jointly developed the framework for a deal, but union officials insisted it was merely a proposal.

The players, who had initially wanted 114 games, responded with an offer of 70, which the league refused to consider. The players, in turn, roundly rejected Manfred’s final offer, a move that forced him to implement his schedule and sunk baseball’s hope for a lucrative expanded playoff format — which the union still holds as a bargaining chip.

The rejection also means that the union retains its right to file a grievance accusing M.L.B. of negotiating in bad faith.

The union’s hard-line stance irritated some current players, like the Cincinnati Reds’ Trevor Bauer, and some retirees, like the former pitcher Mike Stanton, the Yankees’ union representative during C.B.A. negotiations in 2002, when the sides narrowly avoided a strike.

“When I was in the room and I was a player, man, I was all in: ‘We’ve got to fight for everything, we’ve got to do what’s right not just for us, but for the players in the past and the future,’” Stanton said. “But I look at it differently now. I never really thought all that much about the other people — the stadium workers, the parking attendants, the concession-stand people. It was all about what was going on between the two sides and slugging it out.

“But this was a different situation, you know? This shouldn’t have been a C.B.A. negotiation. It turned into it, but it shouldn’t have been. And all the fans that I’ve talked with, that’s what ticked everybody off.”

Credit…Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The impact of those emotions will be harder to quantify than usual this season, because nearly every team will be prohibited from selling tickets, at least initially. M.L.B.’s average per-game attendance dropped for the fourth year in a row in 2019, to to 28,198.

But that figure is still higher than any season before 1993, and with so many more games to sell, M.L.B. — at 68.4 million fans last season — still dwarfs the N.F.L., N.B.A. and N.H.L. in overall attendance. The fans are clearly out there: regional sports networks that broadcast local games ranked No. 1 in prime time cable ratings in nearly every market last season.

This quickie season may appeal as a novelty — with each game counting 2.7 times more than normal — but it will hardly resemble the way fans usually consume the game.

“Baseball takes a lot of time, and I say that in a positive sense,” said Andy Dolich, a sports consultant who has worked in the front offices of teams in M.L.B., the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. “The season, the number of games, the games itself — it’s a soap opera: ‘We’re in it, we’re out of it, we just won 10, we just lost three.’ It is what has attracted people for such a long time.”

But fans’ tastes are changing, Dolich warned, and baseball has work to do to stabilize its popularity in the future. While M.L.B. said that its AtBat app increased in use by 18 percent from 2018 to 2019, baseball’s audience is notorious for skewing older than the other major U.S. team sports.

The Sports Business Journal reported in 2017 that the average age of an M.L.B. viewer was 57 years old — 15 years older than the average N.B.A. viewer. And the popularity of e-sports, especially among younger fans, has grown substantially since then.

“With the absolute tidal wave of gaming and digital devices and instantaneous decision-making, baseball has not stayed current,” Dolich said.

The league added a wild-card play-in game in 2012, and expanded instant replay two years later, and has continually tweaked the format of the Home Run Derby, the appetizer for its marquee summer event, the All-Star Game.

But there is only so much baseball can do to change, because of the sport’s built-in structural quirks. The best hitters still come to bat only four or five times per game. Top starting pitchers appear in fewer than 35 games per season. There is no game clock.

Many feel that straying from the game’s essence would not only be inauthentic, but impractical.

Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“I don’t believe you make baseball fans by fundamentally changing the game,” said the Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster Brian Anderson, who also calls N.B.A., N.C.A.A. basketball and the PGA for Turner Sports. “The experience of the ballpark and the community, the personality of the players, the team concept and strategy are all things we should be mining from an entertainment perspective.

“If they’re going to really change the game, they’d have to blow it up — seven innings, ties, three balls for a walk, two strikes for a strikeout. I don’t want to see that.”

Indeed, if baseball does not tread carefully as it charts a new course, it risks alienating its most loyal customers. This season will include several rule changes: every pitcher must face at least three batters (or finish an inning); the designated hitter will be used in both leagues; and extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, to reduce the likelihood of marathon games.

The latter two measures are intended to protect players’ health for this season only, but they could become fixtures that might unsettle longtime followers.

“I’m certainly classified as a traditionalist, but when you start talking about a pitcher needing to face three hitters or starting an inning with a man on second, I don’t know what game you’re talking about — and I have no interest in that game,” said Claire, 84. “What concerns me is that I don’t want to see an overreaction to all of this.”

A more appealing innovation that players had endorsed was also tabled: broadcast enhancements that would have given fans a closer look at players’ personalities. The best baseball players do not resonate nationally like their counterparts in the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., and creating crossover stars outside of local markets remains a chronic problem.

“They need to continue to market the high-profile players, and they need better cooperation with those guys to take advantage of their social media platform,” said Duquette, now an analyst for SiriusXM and SNY. “It’s underutilized on both sides.”

Credit…Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Baseball did get extensive national publicity in the months before the pandemic — for the Astros’ cheating scandal, in which they used an illegal sign-stealing scheme on their way to winning the 2017 World Series. Manfred was roundly criticized for disciplining no players, but he suspended Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who were then fired by the Astros’ owner, Jim Crane.

Luhnow did not orchestrate the cheating, but some viewed his downfall as an indictment of the team’s analytically driven culture that has spread throughout the game. With so many teams relying heavily on data and video for any marginal advantage, perhaps it was inevitable that some would be tacitly encouraged to cross ethical boundaries.

“I think that’s true,” Minnesota Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said this spring, when asked about that theory. “We’re all competitive at heart and looking for an edge, I guess. Maybe I’m naïve; I try and be who I am with our group, and they’re going to interpret it how they want.”

As teams have increasingly interpreted the numbers to find bargains and avoid costly mistakes, that has undercut the earning power of veterans; their production, in theory, could be replaced by younger, cheaper players.

That trend dismays many players, though most have responded to the analytics wave by giving executives what they want: power pitchers who hunt for strikeouts and disciplined hitters who wait for pitches to drive in the air.

It has had a clear effect on the game itself. M.L.B. set a record for home runs last year — but also for pitches per game. The average number pitches per plate appearance has risen in each of the last four seasons, to 3.93 last year, the most of the 21 seasons tracked by baseball-reference.com.

Accordingly, games lasted an average of 3 hours 10 minutes in 2019, the longest ever.

“They have to do something on the pace of the game,” Duquette said. “It’s absurd. We’re going in the wrong direction, and all of the data suggests that the new fan base talks about how the game is too long.”

Manfred has talked for years about that topic, but has mostly made only minor adjustments; the three-batter-minimum rule, for example, is designed to reduce the many pitching changes that slow down games. Manfred also had the authority to implement a pitch clock before last season, but backed off when players resisted.

This month, though, Manfred had a much more critical decision that involved defying the players. When they dared him to implement a 60-game season over their objections, he did. The potential for a legal fight, a depressed free agent market and another contentious labor negotiation all loom large in the distance.

But for now, almost in spite of itself, baseball is back. Enjoy it while it lasts.

James Wagner contributed reporting.

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