In 1994 it was salary caps and lingering mistrust over collusion.
Twenty years ago, it was “contraction.”
This time the operative and scary word for baseball in its moment of labor crisis is “Omicron.”
As the MLB owners’ lockout heads toward its second month since the most recent collective bargaining agreement expired, take a look around the active sports landscape.
The NHL paused games for a week because of league-wide spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Multiple NFL games just this past week were postponed because of several team outbreaks, including the Rams with nearly half their roster impacted. Bears tackle Akiem Hicks will be sidelined this week against the Seahawks after having returned to action Monday, this time because he went on the team’s COVID list Thursday.
The Bulls are just now emerging from a weeks-long series of COVID-19 positives and this week finally dealt with a postponement of a game, Thursday — because their opponent, the Raptors, had at least six players sidelined because of COVID safety protocols.
And the Gator Bowl needed a last-minute replacement for 25th-ranked Texas A&M to keep its New Year’s Eve game from being canceled by the Aggies’ outbreak, getting Rutgers (5-7) to agree to play 20th-ranked Wake Forest.
All these leagues and teams have higher vaccination rates than Major League Baseball did in 2021 (never mind the Cubs, who were among baseball’s least vaccinated team and finished the season amid a team outbreak).
That’s not to say COVID-19’s latest, especially transmissible variant — Omicron — is going to keep anybody from playing big-league baseball next season.
Baseball’s labor lawyers can do that all by themselves.
The point is COVID’s not going away anytime soon.
And the powers that be on both sides of the negotiating table would be well served to consider that in the context of the real-life economic and fatigue factor for the world — at least the part of the world that still cares at all about paying to watch a sport that has become less entertaining to watch in recent years.
Because there isn’t a Cal Ripken history watch or a steroid-fueled summer of home runs to pull their Astros (or Cubs, Mariners, et al) out of the fire if owners and players screw this one up and bicker into February over fairly basic, fixable economic issues — or worse, delay spring training and the season fighting over a WINO (win in name only).
That’s easier said than done when it comes to the guys running this sport.
Cubs player rep Ian Happ said owners didn’t engage in talks on so much as one economic issue when the sides last met in Dallas in the days leading up to the Dec. 1 expiration of the CBA.
Recent reports suggest they went the month without doing much of anything with an expectations talks will resume in January.
That’s not particularly encouraging for a pair of sides that for more than 50 years have had trouble agreeing on whose turn it is to bring the doughnuts to the meeting.
But there’s more at stake now than ever for a sport whose very pace of play and competition for America’s attention — especially among young people — has reached enough of a crisis stage that the likes of Theo Epstein and Ken Griffey Jr. have been enlisted by MLB in an effort to solve the problem.
Add a deadly pandemic entering its third year of economic, health and stress impact on people of every community, and it’s not hard to imagine fans’ patience finally running dry enough to cause lasting harm if MLB allows next month’s resumption of negotiations to fester into a public spectacle (see: 2020 negotiations over pay and season length during the COVID-shortened season).
If the pandemic has taught us anything so far, it’s that we can cope — and have coped — without sports or significantly altered seasons and expectations. Cubs fans have coped since July without most of their favorite players.
Many have coped with far, far worse — and continue to.
And it doesn’t take a mental health expert or behavioral scientist to see trends that suggest a nationwide shift in overall priorities and behaviors during this historic moment.
These were already happening before the Omicron variant began sweeping the globe and breaking through existing COVID vaccines in a new wave of infections.
Maybe this more-contagious variant isn’t as deadly as the Delta variant. Maybe it’ll be relatively contained by spring.
But for now it’s a reminder that COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. And while many of us might think we’ve learned to live — and play ball — with it, we should also know by now that this is a very sobering, new normal.
All of which should be a reminder to those at the negotiating table — especially the owners who have succeeded in lowering average salaries and payrolls through gains in the last two CBAs — to adopt some of the spirit of this giving season.
And get a deal done before the sport gets waylaid by a WINO.
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