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Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: Baseball’s missed opportunities since the onset of COVID

Major League Baseball seems determined to squander opportunities to seize the limelight

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Late Spring 2020: The United States has been in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic since March. Society ground to a standstill as restrictions came down and only essential businesses remained open. The sporting landscape was no exception. The NBA and the NHL suspended their seasons, and the NCAA took the unprecedented step of cancelling March Madness, their marquee annual tournaments to crown college basketball’s national champions.

Major League Baseball, after initially cancelling spring training, espies a window wherein it can dominate the American sporting scene, at least for a while. Accordingly, the league, under the stalwart and decisive leadership of Rob Manfred, seizes its opportunity. Negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association rapidly coalesce into an abbreviated season that allows baseball a weeks-long monopoly on the American sporting stage.

July 4th, 2020: Play Ball! On America’s birthday, in 15 different stadiums, with start times staggered to ensure an entire day of baseball filling the airwaves, America’s pastime takes center stage. Even with no fans in the stands, MLB’s aggressive marketing blitz in the weeks leading up to America’s Opening Day has stoked the nation’s excitement for baseball, a reprieve from the ever-present pandemic, and a return to normalcy, at least for a moment.

In at least one alternate parallel universe, the above scenario played out exactly as described, and pandemic-weary Americans were able to immerse themselves in the escape of baseball. For MLB, they were able to dominate the sports cycle (in a positive way), a rare opportunity given that the NFL sucks all the oxygen out of the room almost 365 days a year.

In our world, however, the story played out much differently. On May 11th, 2020, over six weeks from a hypothetical July 4th Opening Day, the owners reached an agreement among themselves for an 82-game season, expanded rosters, an expanded playoff, and a 50-50 revenue split with the players.

From there, though, a tragicomedy of errors ensued. By mid-June, a July 4th start to the season was all but out the window. And rather than getting 82 games, it increasingly looked like baseball would settle for somewhere between 60 and 70.

On June 23rd, Commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the 60-game season, with a second spring training that would begin July 1st. Opening Day? Late July. The 23rd or the 24th. Meanwhile, other leagues were not wasting time. The NBA announced its season would resume on July 30th. The NHL announced its return to the ice for August 1st. Instead of an exclusive window of virtually all of July during which baseball could monopolize American sports, baseball stumbled and bumbled its way to one week.

“But Kevin. You are not being fair. Negotiations require two sides. This is not all on Major League Baseball. The players were intransigent too.”

Sure. But the fundamental difference (at least in my mind) is that Major League Baseball and the team owners, under the leadership of Commissioner Manfred, are responsible for the long-term stewardship of the game. They are the ones who need to have a strategic vision for baseball, one flexible enough to seize unique opportunities such as the dearth of professional sports during that long spring and early summer of 2020.

The average player manages to stick around for a few years in the big leagues then moves on to another stage of their lives. Asking or expecting them to steward the game into the future is unfair. Almost two years later, I remain convinced that baseball missed its best chance in recent memory to command the attention of sports-starved American fans for a prolonged period of time.

Two years later, I fear that baseball is in an analogous position. Granted, even if pitchers and catchers had reported on time this week, baseball would not have the sporting stage to itself. The NHL and NBA seasons are in full swing, and the Winter Olympics are wrapping up. But the 800-pound gorilla, the NFL, is in one of its rare lulls with the Super Bowl over and free agency yet to begin. Once again, baseball has a window to command attention.

Unfortunately, with the lockout dragging and no reason to believe it will end anytime soon, it is increasingly likely that once again Major League Baseball will squander a chance to capitalize.

Some MLB teams, active and aggressive in free agency, almost certainly have high levels of pent-up excitement among their fanbases. The Texas Rangers, fresh off spending half a billion dollars on their infield. The Toronto Blue Jays, a terrifying offensive juggernaut. The Atlanta Braves, fresh off a World Series championship. The New York Mets, who backed up the Brinks truck to bring Max Scherzer to the Big Apple. These teams’ fans, among others certainly, are likely champing at the bit to see baseball’s return.

There’s more. Elite players, including Freddie Freeman and Carlos Correa remain unsigned, and a second free agent frenzy will almost certainly follow the lockout’s resolution. A truly hot stove will accompany free agency, with players like Matt Olson loudly rumored to be on the trading block.

Alas, there is no sign that a new CBA is on the horizon, nor that the owners will lift the lockout in the absence of a resolution. So instead of filling the temporary vacuum left by the NFL’s relative absence with spring training, a free agency blitz, myriad trade rumors, and excited fanbases, Major League Baseball trudges along. The only news baseball contributes to the cycle is of the dispiriting kind.

For the second time in two calendar years, it seems like Major League Baseball is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. When presented with opportunities to maximize the game’s exposure and command the attention of the sporting public, the league seems to let them pass. Is this inaction due to an absence of a strategic vision for the game, or that vision’s subordination to other concerns? Either way, it is disheartening to see baseball walk past windows of opportunity.

Again, I realize I am opening myself up to the criticism that it takes two to tango and that it is unfair to place this yoke solely around the necks of the owners and Rob Manfred. But I remain unconvinced that the onus is on the players to prioritize baseball’s long-term growth when their average careers are much shorter than the average amount of time that a team owner will control their club, and while the average player’s career income is much lower than the extent to which team owners see their club’s value grow.

This rests on Major League Baseball. Rob Manfred and the owners to whom he answers are the ones who, in my mind, are ultimately responsible for doing what is best for the game. I remain skeptical that forfeiting opportunities to step to the fore of American sports is in baseball’s best interests. Therefore, I come back to the nagging suspicion that either there is no vision or it is beholden to other considerations.