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Larry Stone: MLB’s labor battle may be nearing an end, but it will take a while to overcome the self-inflicted damage

UPDATED: Sat., June 20, 2020

Al Jackson, a die-hard Seattle Mariners fan and 11-year season ticket holder, takes a photo through the bars at the home plate entrance of T-Mobile Park in Seattle, Thursday, March 26, 2020, around the time when the Mariners' Opening Day baseball game against the visiting Texas Rangers would have started. Earlier in the month, Major League Baseball called off the start of the season due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus, but Jackson said he still felt he needed to be down at the ballpark just the same.  (Associated Press)
Al Jackson, a die-hard Seattle Mariners fan and 11-year season ticket holder, takes a photo through the bars at the home plate entrance of T-Mobile Park in Seattle, Thursday, March 26, 2020, around the time when the Mariners' Opening Day baseball game against the visiting Texas Rangers would have started. Earlier in the month, Major League Baseball called off the start of the season due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus, but Jackson said he still felt he needed to be down at the ballpark just the same. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Even the good news comes with a slap in the face for baseball these days.

Hopes were naively raised Wednesday that MLB’s distasteful, unseemly, disastrous (Rob Manfred’s word) labor battle was finally nearing an end – and it may actually be. Film at 11. Or flimflam at 11:30, if this goes according to form.

Once again, the owners and players couldn’t agree on what “is” is. Commissioner Manfred said the framework for a deal to resume a season halted by the coronavirus pandemic had been reached. The union said that wasn’t true. And so the impasse plodded on, wreaking havoc on the sport’s reputation with every ticking second.

It’s been quite a flip-floppy week for Manfred. On June 10 he declared that “we’re going to play baseball in 2020, 100% .” Then a mere five days later Manfred said he wasn’t at all confident that was going to happen. And two days after that, following a long meeting with union chief Tony Clark, he sent out a news release indicating that a deal in principle was at hand.

“I am encouraging the Clubs to move forward and I trust Tony is doing the same,” he said.

But the union was not nearly so sanguine. No deal yet, they thundered, bursting the bubble of initial optimism. The players want more than the 60 games MLB proposed in its latest offer, in which the owners finally acceded to the players’ belief that 100% prorated pay was settled law. The pay concession is a huge deal, but there’s still plenty of opportunity for this to unravel, considering the undisguised animosity between the two sides.

The union has countered with a 70-game proposal, and it would be logical for the sides to meet at 65 games. But when has logic has ever entered these proceedings?

The question now, however, is not whether a deal will eventually be reached. I still think that’s the likely outcome, once hotter heads unprevail. And if they do agree at 65 or so games with full pro rata, baseball fans should be screaming, “Why did this take a month?” A lot of misery could have been avoided if Manfred and his men didn’t try a power play to undermine the March 26 agreement of full prorated pay for 2020.

The larger question is how much damage, direct and collateral, has been done to the sport since this jabbering over money went public, even if it ends with some semblance of a season.

Answer: The harm to baseball has been immense. That is indisputable. Is it irreparable? Yes and no. Baseball has survived all manner of labor unrest, including three lockouts and four strikes from 1972 to 1995. The last of them, 26 years ago, resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and a vow from hordes of disillusioned fans that they were done with baseball.

Yet baseball made a remarkable recovery from the strike due largely to the prolific home-run era that followed. It was later revealed to be fueled by steroids, but the inevitable backlash was deemed an acceptable price by owners and players who reveled in the robust boost in attendance and revenue.

That same vow of forsaking baseball is being made by fans now, but there may well be a revival of sorts once players such as Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna Jr., Max Scherzer, Mookie Betts and all the other stars from this talented era get a chance to remind us why we fell in love with baseball in the first place.

For all its foibles, baseball’s inherent beauty, the natural rhythms, the lore and statistics and the historical continuity, has endeared it to generation after generation – no matter how hard they try to kill it off.

People these days seem to have a notoriously short memory, so there’s a likelihood the current disgust with baseball will fade. Maybe there are so many calamities befalling us that you can’t dwell too long on any one disappointment. But this isn’t really about the processing being done in the brain. It’s more about the heart. And that’s where baseball will suffer the most from all these weeks of bickering at a time when the nation has far bigger issues to worry about. Baseball didn’t get an ounce of sympathy; instead, it got scorn. And it deserved it.

The world has changed immeasurably since the game was shut down in March. We’ve found other things to do with our free time. Many have discovered they don’t need baseball as much as they thought. In the big picture, it doesn’t seem nearly as important as it once did. And the impression that the stewards of baseball don’t really have the best interest of the game at heart – as evidenced by the plan to trim 40 minor-league teams, as well as the news leaks that several owners would prefer not to play at all in 2020 – has just added to the cumulative malaise.

Yes, it looks like baseball will return. But it might be a while before baseball is truly back where it matters most – in the heart.

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