Not long after, once that stadium emptied, Adam Eaton led his family up the dugout steps and onto the field. The lights were dimmed. The stands were empty. A cleaning crew swept a mess into small piles. Eaton, the Nationals’ right fielder, told his son to jog around the bases. He showed his father and son where to put their feet so they could stand like him in the batter’s box. Then he walked his son, his parents and his wife to the exact spot where he watched the final out.
They all stood there, imagining it again, saving that image in the safest parts of their brains. But in that moment, as parties filled Washington, baseball fans couldn’t have known to do the same. The eight months since have brought the cheating scandals of the Astros and the Boston Red Sox, the novel coronavirus pandemic, the ensuing labor battle between players and owners, the troubling treatment of minor leaguers — deep breath — and, with an agreement this week, the advent of a 60-game season while the country remains in a public health crisis.
So Game 7 of the World Series is not only the last time two teams engaged in meaningful competition. It was one of the last good things that happened in baseball. It was the calm before a still-raging storm.
“If fans found something to replace baseball in this time, with all that’s happened, then the sport would have a problem moving forward,” said George Dohrmann, whose book “Superfans” explored the psychology of fandom. “But it’s more likely that these events — the cheating scandals, the labor unrest — will make it less likely for older fans to pass the game down to the next generation.”
Dohrmann explained that, if baseball were to be canceled for 2020, angered fans probably would find another fix. That could still happen, with the coronavirus continuing to ripple through America and a health and safety plan that hinges on a flimsy honor code. European soccer, golf and NASCAR are already operating. The NBA and NHL plan to insulate players in a bubble or hub cities to minimize travel and maximize isolation and safety.
But there are lots of reasons people discard a sport. They might have a child, meet a new partner or go through another life-changing event, Dohrmann said. And if baseball sees a slow-drip exodus, no matter whether it has a season, there’s a good chance 2020 is a factor.
The setup came Nov. 12, 2019, when the Athletic reported the Astros had used an illegal electronic sign-stealing system in 2017 and 2018. Mike Fiers, a former Astros pitcher, came forward to expose them and was labeled a whistleblower. By spring, when camps started in Florida and Arizona, Major League Baseball had levied punishments against the Astros and was reviewing evidence that the Red Sox had violated rules by stealing signs, too.
A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ manager, and Jeff Luhnow, their general manager, were banned for a year and immediately fired. Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was Hinch’s bench coach in 2017, was ousted. So was Carlos Beltrán, newly hired as the New York Mets’ manager, because he played for the Astros in 2017 and reportedly used his veteran influence to help orchestrate the elaborate scheme.
This was the talk of baseball for weeks. The Astros were peppered with questions about stealing signs, about being booed wherever they went, about the possibility of being drilled with fastballs once the regular season began. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis told reporters that “every single guy over there needs a beating.” Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger said the Astros “shouldn’t be comfortable” stepping in for at-bats.
The rest of baseball seemed bound by a shared disdain for Houston. Many also were upset at Commissioner Rob Manfred, saying the penalties did not fit the transgressions. Houston lost its manager, its GM, draft picks and money. But no active players were punished, and the team’s 2017 title was left untouched.
“The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act,” Manfred said in an interview with ESPN. That triggered another wave of social media criticism from players, who suggested that Manfred and MLB were out of touch. Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner summed it up by shifting his frustration from the Astros to Manfred, saying, “At this point, the only thing devaluing that trophy is that it says ‘commissioner’ on it.”
This was only the beginning.
By mid-March, with the virus spiking, MLB canceled the rest of spring training and suspended the regular season for at least two weeks. By late March, when it was clear the suspension would last much longer, MLB and the players’ union agreed to a deal that would pay players prorated shares of their salaries for however many games are ultimately played.
But MLB contended the agreement called for a second economic negotiation for games played without fans to offset lost revenue from tickets, concessions and parking. The next offer it made was for an 82-game season with a sliding-scale pay structure. It was far from pro rata, which the players believed had been agreed to.
The players rejected the offer. They made a counterproposal May 31, 114 games with full prorated pay, and the owners rejected that. They traded proposals June 8 and 9 that went nowhere. Vocal members of the players’ union — Nationals ace Max Scherzer, St. Louis Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer — blasted Manfred and the owners on social media. They used their platforms to shift the public narrative that players are the greedy ones when millionaires battle billionaires. But for many fans, using their social media platforms, too, that battle was hard to swallow while facing the economic realities of a pandemic.
“Fans follow those proceedings, like strikes and labor negotiations, because they want to know when games will be back,” Dohrmann said. “But the money side can be a big turnoff, especially now.”
Before the draft broadcast this month, Manfred guaranteed a season of some length. Days later, when negotiations soured again, he told ESPN he was “not confident” there would be baseball this year. Meanwhile, midway through June, the virus had left hundreds of minor league players without a job.
Facing the prospect of paying them $400 per week for the summer, many teams released dozens of players. The Oakland Athletics tried to stop paying altogether, before public shaming forced them to reverse course. The Nationals tried to cut weekly stipends from $400 to $300, but public shaming and a pledge from their major leaguers to cover the difference forced them to restore the full amount.
The Nationals spent around $205 million on their 40-man roster before winning the World Series in 2019. They cut 40 minor leaguers at the end of May to save $70,000 in June and because it is increasingly likely that there will not be a minor league season. A majority of teams made similar choices, and it all left another dark mark on the sport.
“Part of me is like, ‘Well, if the Royals would sign me, I’ll keep playing,’ ” a player released by the Nationals in May said, referring to one team that maintained its $400 weekly stipends and full benefits and did not cut any minor leaguers. The player spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his chances of getting another job in the sport. “Then you realize they are doing the bare minimum. The minor leagues will teach you to lower expectations. All of baseball will.”
Now there is an agreement for a season. Well, sort of.
It took trading a handful of offers that looked very similar to one another. Then the players’ union declined MLB’s last proposal Monday. It did so to retain the right to file a $1 billion grievance against MLB for not negotiating in good faith. But the main contents of the last proposal — 60 games, full prorated pay — are the basis of what baseball will attempt in July.
Training camps are expected to open next week. The hope is for the regular season to begin three weeks later, though the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays already have had coronavirus cases, and the country is dealing with a severe spike in many states.
Since October, since Game 7, since the Eatons stood in Minute Maid Park wondering what could be better, baseball has exposed each fracture beneath its surface. The sport has had an unforgettable stretch of bad publicity and infighting. And it may just be the opening act for this dicey experiment of a season and what could come with collective bargaining agreement negotiations in 2021.
“We owe it to our fans to be better than we’ve been the last three months,” Manfred told the Associated Press this week, suggesting that a public labor fight was all the sport had done wrong.
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