NEW YORK — The discord between Major League Baseball players and owners has consumed all of spring, and is on the verge of trickling into the start of summer. Fiscal negotiations on opening the season have warped from bad, to hopeful, to worse, to messy and ugly within a regular 9-5 workday.
Fans have increasingly lost interest in the sport potentially returning this summer. A face-to-face meeting between MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Players Association chief Tony Clark did little to raise spirits when those same men couldn’t even agree on what they previously discussed.
It’s a disastrous time to be a fan of baseball, and one former Major Leaguer is very disappointed with the way this friction has impacted the resumption of the game.
“I’m grieving the fact that there’s no baseball,” R.A. Dickey, the knuckleballer who capped off his three-year Mets run with a magical 2012 season that earned him the National League Cy Young award, told the New York Daily News.
Dickey, 45, retired from the game more than two years ago. He’s now adjusting to life in Nashville, where he grew up and now owns an enormous farm with 37 animals, including horses, a donkey, a pig, ducks, rabbits, dogs and cats. When he’s not busy being a self-described “gentleman farmer” and coaching his son’s Little League team, he’s keeping up with MLB negotiations and feeling conflicted about the players and owners’ approach to what he called a tough situation from the get-go.
“I was part of the union for a long time, so I get it,” said Dickey, who played in the majors from 2001-17. “In this present day and age and in this climate that we’re in now, I think America needs a little bit of a boost, a lift, and sometimes we can escape into the world of baseball the way we can’t with other things. I hope for a lot more diplomacy.
“As a fan, I’m sad. My son and I and others are sad that there’s no baseball. I wish that they could figure out a way to do that. And the baseball part of me, the person that played for a long time and knows what goes on, I have more patience than the fan part of me for these things.”
The league on Friday rejected the union’s proposal to play 70 games at full prorated salaries. Hard-line owners were unwilling to move from the 60-game schedule Manfred proposed to Clark in their face-to-face meeting in Arizona earlier in the week. The union responded with a statement that created more despair than optimism.
And that’s what these negotiations have been: embarrassing public statements from two men, Manfred and Clark, who are so in over their heads they don’t even realize they’re drowning. Manfred cannot get owners to move from 60 games and Clark is attempting to direct a union that is organized when tweeting “tell us when and where,” but uncoordinated when deciding whether to file a grievance for the league’s bad-faith negotiations.
Dickey remembers happier times during his involvement with the union, when Michael Weiner was the executive director of the Players Association. Weiner died of brain cancer in 2013 at the age of 51 and Clark succeeded him. Dickey went through four collective bargaining agreements through the course of his 15-year big-league career.
“There was a lot of solidarity under Weiner,” Dickey said. “I think it was reflected in the way that one of our collective bargaining agreements was structured. We were really well educated, we had good representation and we had a really wise council at the top levels of the administration.
“From the outside looking in, it seems like things are a little more tense than when I was a player. That’s just factual. I’m probably not alone in saying that. And the pandemic has really, forgive the metaphor, but it’s thrown a curveball at people. I didn’t have to contend with that.”
Dickey is right. The coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc on the United States. Over 121,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19 and more than 40 million workers are unemployed because of the pandemic. Major professional sports leagues are struggling to open their respective seasons in the face of increased outbreaks and spikes.
A COVID-19 outbreak at the Phillies spring training camp in Florida caused operations to shut down in Friday as players from other teams, like the Blue Jays and Astros, tested positive for the virus. In response, MLB is shutting down all spring camps to allow facilities to undergo a deep cleaning and disinfecting. As positive cases begin to rise in Florida, both the Yankees and Mets are reportedly considering moving their spring training 2.0 (if a season kicks off) to New York City, where the outbreak has stabilized.
Even though the looming threat of the virus could dampen MLB’s restart plan, the league’s health and safety protocols are not nearly as much of an issue as player salaries. If MLB cannot finalize a deal to begin the season due to disagreements over revenue, the sport will suffer at the expense of its fan base.
“You can be sore at the game and the industry for quibbling over billions of dollars when you’re a hard working blue-collar citizen,” Dickey said. “Optically, that looks poor and you might want to boycott the sport for a moment.”
But Dickey does not believe baseball fans, those who are truly passionate about the sport, will be lost for long.
“I think in the end, people will come back around to being attracted to the purity of what baseball gives,” Dickey said. “The rawness of the sport — people are drawn to that. Sometimes baseball is a hard sport to love. It’s slow and it takes time and there’s a lot of strategy involved. But if you love that, then it’s hard for you not to love it all of a sudden. There’s something to be said about time healing all wounds.
“The young people that love the game, they don’t understand the fiscal part of it. They just love baseball. When it comes back, regardless of why it wasn’t there to begin with, they’re going to be all in. I’m not going to deny my nine-year-old son the opportunity to go watch a Major League Baseball game because there was an argument over money. I might be sore about it, but I’m not going to deprive him of that.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe fans will come back to the sport one way or another. Maybe they will ignore the fact that their loyalty and devotion to the game was completely taken advantage of because players and owners made it about money instead of being the first sport to return in the pandemic. Maybe time does heal all wounds and we’ll look back and laugh about this never ending saga on how to get players back on the field.
Players and owners have already drawn their lines in the sand. Now fans can decide how much more time they want to invest in a sport that’s more concerned with winning an argument than playing baseball.
©2020 New York Daily News