Love after lockout? Why fans might return despite anger

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In the 1990s, Major League Baseball had steroids and Cal Ripken’s streak to sell disengaged and bitter fans to eventually draw them back to ballparks after the lengthy labor stoppage that spanned parts of two seasons and wiped out a World Series.

A generation later, MLB might get saved by the timing of the recent pandemic and the nation’s decreasing attention span — not to mention the anticipation of success of at least one team in this town — if some local fans are correct.

And also if the league ever gets a new collective bargaining agreement done with players and/or chooses to lift the lockout it imposed Dec. 2.

Definitely some very big “ifs.”

But most fans we talked to over the course of two days in Wrigleyville during the past week say MLB’s shutdown won’t keep them from coming back once games start back up, even as commissioner Rob Manfred wiped another week off the schedule Wednesday — and even as some of those same fans are upset about the lockout.

“I’m pretty sure I’m locked in,” said longtime fan James Rogers, who stopped to chat about it while he and his wife, Melissa, took a walk in their neighborhood.

“Will fans [in general] come back? I think we live in a more temporary mindset, a forgetful world,” he added of many peoples’ short attention spans. “People will complain more than ever now, but they’ll also be here every day after that.”

“And we’re desperate for fun after the pandemic,” Melissa said. “So we’ll forgive anyone.”

“But the Cubs aren’t really going to be fun this year,” James added, “so we’ll still be desperate.”

That’s definitely worth a laugh in March.

But in April? May?

God forbid June?

“It’s sad,” said Shawnda Tharps, a baseball fan who lives two blocks from Wrigley Field and attends 10 to 15 Cubs games a year. “It’s sad for the players, but I also think it’s sad for the fans.

“Eventually I’m going to watch at some point,” she said, “but it really sours my thought about baseball. Like, when is it going to start? Do I care? Until you show me you care about baseball and you’re gonna let it happen for the fans, it’s upsetting. I’m never going to completely give up the sport, but it’s just, like, well, who cares right now.

“I don’t think the owners care about the fans; I don’t. I think they care about their bottom line and their profits.”

Tharps grew up a football and baseball fan in the Seattle area, following the Mariners teams of Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez (we refrained from asking about Russell Wilson and the Seahawks) — and claims two favorite baseball teams since moving here nine years ago.

Rogers might be right about this year’s retooling Cubs. But Tharps’ Mariners won 90 games last year and expect big things this year — which is a lot of the “sad” part about this.

“We’re kind of an up-and-coming team, with a good farm system and looking forward to getting close to making the playoffs,” she said. “We’re excited to just see baseball again.”

Maybe she can take it up with Manfred.

Until then, she knows she’ll be back, as sad and upsetting as the lockout might be.

“It’s ridiculous,” James Rogers said.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin apparently agrees, the ranking Cubs fan in the U.S. Senate tweeting Wednesday night at the owners to lift the lockout — and pledging to “reconsider” baseball’s antitrust exemption. “Fans across America deserve better,” he wrote.

Keegan Galvin, a University of San Diego student who grew up in Texas as a Rangers fan and also considers himself a Padres fan, doesn’t like the lockout anymore than Durbin. But he doesn’t think today’s anger will be much of a drag on tomorrow’s attendance.

“Just because of the changing pandemic,” he said. “As things become more and more open, I think that we’ll see fans come back.”

Galvin, who was in town visiting his girlfriend (also a USD student), said he also thinks the sudden flurry of high-profile free agent signings expected when the lockout is lifted will stoke immediate interest and excitement.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “So I think for current baseball fans, once this is over, you’ll see a sort of revamp in attendance.

“I’m excited personally. But I’m nervous as to how long it’s gonna last. I will be back, 100 percent. Come whenever. But it might be a long time.”

For Nick Rizzi and Leo Fargotstein, there’s the added incentive of getting back to watching a young and talented White Sox team try to live up to very big 2022 expectations.

“The Sox have got a great team this year, so I’ll be there [when baseball returns], said Rizzi, who grew up in Downers Grove and lives now in Wrigleyville. “They’ve got my attention.”

But what if the Sox sucked this year?

“The Sox don’t suck,” he said firmly. “So I will be there, yes.”

Rizzi even thinks a shorter season might help the Sox.

“Maybe some fresher legs with fewer games,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll harm anything for sure.”

Fargotstein isn’t even from Chicago. He moved to Lakeview 14 months ago after graduating from the University of Missouri — a lifelong Cardinals fan who grew up in Memphis and has since adopted the Sox as his local team.

“Not only because they’re good. They’re the opposite of the Cubs,” said Fargotstein, who estimates he went to 40 Sox games last summer. “I just fell in love with the crowd. I love the culture over there. It was blue collar. And they’ve got Tony La Russa over there — I’m a Cardinals fan at heart, so it was awesome watching that team. Reminded me of the ’04 Cardinals.

“Good beer, too.”

Forgotstein doesn’t mind at least a slightly shorter season — he’s an advocate for shortening the season anyway. And moving back the mound, and trying to improve the pace of the game.

“But I love the sport. It’s a great game,” he said, fully aware that’s a unique fan obsession for his generation.

“My biggest fear is my generation and the ones [behind] me — that’s the one I fear,” he said, “that they’re going to start losing fans. The game needs to evolve a little bit more. Like in all the other sports. Hopefully, it will.

“But I’m always here for baseball, no matter what happens.”

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