Red Sox

McAdam: As labor talks drag on, baseball is squandering its big chance

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(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

I was talking with a friend last week -- someone who has worked both in baseball and in the media -- and, with some resignation in his voice, he asked: "Remember when baseball used to lead?''

The question hung in the air for a while. Yes, we both remembered such a time. But what followed was the sad realization that, today, such a notion feels hopelessly antiquated.

Still, there was a time when people turned to baseball in times of crisis. Baseball offered a balm at times, a distraction at others, something to take our minds off some bit of ugliness around us: an economic depression, a war, or a national calamity.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.

It happened as recently as 2001.

By then, baseball had already fallen behind football as the country's most popular game. (It's difficult to pinpoint the exact intersection that saw football overtake baseball, though I would argue it happened sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s).

But when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place, it was still baseball -- and not football -- that proved to be a rallying point.

Ten days after the attacks, the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves met at Shea Stadium. Mike Piazza's game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth inning was one of the most iconic in recent memory and served as a healing moment for the city. Those in attendance will never forget the roar -- part joy, part relief -- as Piazza rounded the bases

Less than two months later, an unforgettable World Series included the indelible memory of President George W. Bush, wearing a bulky bullet-proof vest, throwing out the first pitch before Game 3, as police with sniper rifles, acting as a powerful deterrent, ringed the top of Yankee Stadium.

Even die-hard Red Sox fans, however temporarily, aligned themselves with the Yankees that fall in the ultimate show of solidarity.

The NFL resumed play within a week or so of the attacks, but there are no such football moments associated with that troubled time in our country's history. Yes, the NFL had solemn remembrances of the lives lost, and properly honored the memory of the fallen.

But nothing resonated like that night at Shea, or the World Series held seven weeks later, one borough over.

That's not a knock on football. It's just a fact.

Maybe it was because Americans had a habit of turning to baseball in times of trouble. (Maybe, too, it had something to do with the NFL's tone-deaf decision to play its games as scheduled just days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a rare misstep by Pete Rozelle for which the commissioner never forgave himself).

It could have something to do with the fact the baseball is played virtually every day, and its existence in times of national crisis is literally a daily reminder that, even in some small way, a sense of normalcy has returned.

Baseball used to lead the way on social issues, too. When the sport integrated in 1947, it had a profound impact on race relations. If a previously all-white team could welcome a black teammate, perhaps so could society at large.

Sadly, such leadership has lately been squandered, beaten down by self-interest and hyper-partisanship.

Baseball has within its grasp the opportunity to be the first sport to return to play post-pandemic. It could resume ahead of the NBA and NFL and months ahead of the NFL and have the sports stage to itself - at least for a while.

It could offer a welcome deterrent, a comforting distraction to the pandemic and the violence that has roiled the nation for the past week.

But such a scenario seems entirely far-fetched in 2020. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association are too busy alienating its already shrinking fan base to serve as any sort of national succor.

There are petty points to win in the court of public opinion, names to be called and negotiating edges to be gained.

Saving the industry, putting the game back on the field and providing something positive to tens of millions of fans at a time of crisis? Well, shoot, where's the leverage in that?

Instead, the owners and the union exchange proposals that seem designed to antagonize rather than compromise. Days after the PA proposed a 112-game schedule, owners countered with a schedule even shorter than the 82-game season they had originally proposed. Meanwhile, the union made it a priority to argue that players who opt-out of the 2020 season without a medical reason to do so should still accrue service time.

It's this kind of pointless bickering that has turned off so many.

All of which isn't to suggest that there aren't valid concerns on both sides. Owners are seeking some financial relief at a time when they can't sell their product to their fan base and players understandably want protection -- fiscal and medical -- in the midst of a worldwide virus. No reasonable person would deny the importance of both points.

The longer the dispute continues, the deeper the divisions become. If the two sides can't find enough common ground soon, baseball will cede the moment to basketball and hockey, bringing up the rear. And if can't find agreement at all, baseball will disappear altogether for 2020 -- a frighteningly apt metaphor if ever there were one.

Remember when baseball used to lead?

I do. But it's getting harder and harder to recall.