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MLB owners have a lot of work ahead to get fans to return to baseball

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It’s not as simple as just scheduling a 60-game season.

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I have been following the Chicago Cubs and baseball since 1963.

It was a great time to be introduced to the sport and the team. Games were on TV every afternoon and the ballclub had many good, likeable players. By 1969, when a star-crossed team thrilled us, then fizzled, I was hooked, pouring my emotions into the Chicago Cubs. I was hardly the only one — attendance at Wrigley Field that year was the highest since 1929.

This is what baseball does. It, and other professional sports, thrive on strong emotions and loyalty. That’s what makes sports different from any other business — the passion it generates among its fans. In the case of the Cubs, the only MLB franchise who’s played in the same city since 1876, this loyalty, love and passion has been passed down through several generations. You might be one of those people whose parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents were Cubs fans and passed that along to you like a treasured family heirloom.

We have lived and died with game results and seasons, suffered soul-crushing postseason defeats, watched 100-loss ballclubs and spent decades wondering if the team’s World Series drought would ever end, and then reaching the pinnacle of our passion November 2, 2016, when Anthony Rizzo snared an off-balance throw from Kris Bryant and the Cubs were indeed World Series champions. It was an event many thought they might never see in their lifetime, and indeed many dedicated Cubs fans didn’t live long enough to witness the culmination of their baseball dreams.

This is how we live as baseball fans. Major League Baseball is here because we have dreams like this. Without those dreams, the sport doesn’t exist. We have all paid money, whether it’s from ticket purchases, cable/satellite subscriptions, MLB’s own TV packages and from souvenirs and other memorabilia, to follow our chosen team and to feel a part of it. Watch a ballgame from the 1960s or 1970s — they’re around — and look carefully at fans in the stands. Generally, the only people you’ll see wearing team gear are kids. Go to a game now and likely 75-80 percent of adults are wearing some sort of team shirt or cap or both. MLB has monetized the game to an extent we’ve never seen before, and the money taken in has helped pay fantastical salaries to great players, money that perhaps those players never dreamed of. Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge the players one penny of that money. They are the show, the reason we watch, the reason we fill ballparks.

Let me make clear once again: I recognize that MLB as a whole is going to be missing 40 percent of its revenue this year, from having no ticket sales and other in-ballpark sales. That’s a significant amount of money, no question. But that still leaves them 60 percent — that will amount to around $6 billion — and the public perception is that they’re deigning to throw a few crumbs at players. This public perception will remain as long as baseball owners won’t open their books, and as we all know... they won’t do that.

Team owners have trampled all over our emotions for the last three months. Instead of truly sitting down with players and not only making a plan together for this year but perhaps a collective-bargaining agreement for years to come, they cried poor — almost as if they’re the XFL, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy — and we’ve wound up with the imposition of a 60-game season, which appears to be what owners had in mind in the first place, because their stalling tactics over the last couple of months left enough time for only about that much of a season. It’s not so much the length of this season I have a problem with — the novel coronavirus pandemic is dictating that, and will likely dictate other changes — it’s the method by which we have arrived at this moment.

I have been following the Chicago Cubs and baseball since 1963. In recent years, this has also become my work, rewarding and fulfilling work, in the vernacular: “living the dream.” I should be absolutely thrilled that I’ll be seeing baseball within a few weeks, even if it’s only on TV. Baseball has been the soundtrack of my summer for almost my entire life.

Instead, my emotions range from disgust to disappointment to almost not caring. If this is what someone who has lived and breathed baseball for decades feels about what MLB owners and Commissioner Rob Manfred have done to the sport, imagine what the casual fan thinks. I’ve already heard here and elsewhere from Cubs season-ticket holders that they’re done buying tickets and have heard from others expressing extreme distaste for what the stewards of the game have done to the sport. It will take much work for baseball to get those people back. They cannot be taken for granted, and in recent years, it seems MLB has been doing just that.

Rob Manfred, over just the last three months, has established himself as a worse Commissioner for his sport than Roger Goodell or Gary Bettman, and that’s difficult to do, because the latter two men are pretty much reviled by NFL and NHL fans, and Bettman presided over the cancellation of a full hockey season.

I have not even touched, yet, on the pandemic and what it will likely do to baseball. Outbreaks in Florida and Arizona already forced the closing of all MLB training facilities, and it doesn’t appear they’ll re-open for the three weeks of practice that teams will begin in a week or so, instead, team practices will probably be held in ballclubs’ home parks. That is, if the virus doesn’t wind up shutting those down when they begin. Here’s the likely time frame:

I should be elated about this, making plans to write about a 60-game season and what it means, thinking about the Cubs’ chances of winning this year, getting ready to see baseball on TV just about four weeks from now.

Instead, I’m just exhausted from the back-and-forth between owners and players, all of which has been done in an atmosphere of mistrust that to me appears worse than it was in 1981, when a strike cancelled a third of the season, and in 1994-95, when a World Series wasn’t played for the first time in 90 years. If owners and players had sat and talked and decided they just couldn’t make a credible 2020 season due to the coronavirus and stood united and said so, a lot of goodwill could have been made with fans. We’d have understood.

Instead, all that goodwill was pissed away, and for what? To save a relatively small amount of money that in the grand scheme of things, amounts to nothing? Owners have attempted to avoid short-term losses here, but appear to have lost sight of the long-term damage that’s been done to the game.

You know, one thing team owners could do to begin to repair the damage would be to lift all TV blackouts for the 60-game season. That would be a very small gesture that would be appreciated by many baseball fans and might get them thinking, “Hey, they did a nice thing, for once.” As I noted here a couple of weeks ago, the league doesn’t appear inclined to do that. They ought to. It would be a little sign that they actually do have some consideration for us, the paying customer.

So there will be baseball, if the virus permits. I suppose when it’s in front of me, I’ll watch it. It’ll take a while, though, for my passion to return to what it was just three months ago.

Play ball.

Poll

Here’s how I feel about MLB owners’ 60-game imposed season...

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    I love baseball and can’t wait. Full speed ahead!
    (51 votes)
  • 62%
    I’ll watch, but my enthusiasm level is down from before
    (218 votes)
  • 16%
    I’m done with baseball for 2020, but will probably come back in 2021 or later
    (58 votes)
  • 5%
    I’m done with baseball for good
    (20 votes)
347 votes total Vote Now