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Baseball’s Excuse and a Lost Season

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Baseball, it seems, can’t live without the $12 beer.

MiLB: NOV 11 Arizona Fall League - Surprise Saguaros v Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

My wife really liked the show Friends. Then one day, I accidentally ruined it for her. In that show, I told her, the women are impossibly beautiful and always correct. The men are impossibly and lovably dumb and cowardly. About a month later, she said she couldn't see anything but what I said from Friends. This was not intentional on my part. I didn’t hate the show and it wasn’t meant to be an insult. It was something that I thought everyone understood and enjoyed about it. So I might ruin Major League Baseball in the same way for you, unless this is something that you already understand.

I have been told something about baseball that I didn’t believe at first. But the last two months are making me start to come around on it. Fifteen years ago, I spoke to a coworker about baseball. He didn’t really care for it, and preferred basketball. “Baseball is okay for just having a beer and chilling out for a few innings.” I didn’t really feel that way at the time. Five years ago, Jon Bois said, “baseball isn’t really a sport. It’s more of an excuse to get really messed up... In the 1800s they’d actually have beer at third base.” And here I am, watching it for its beauty, like a jerk I guess.

Right now, we are told that baseball will have an impossible time surviving without the revenue of attendance from fans. The Braves made over 400 million dollars via home games and at most 110 million from television last year. The television money wouldn’t cover the roster salary in a regular year. This is no normal year. The players agreed to only receive money for games played after a salary advance in March.

The choices for ownership are (1) play a season which they will hemorrhage cash, (2) lean on the players for salary concessions, or (3) wait until the government allows full stadiums. Choice one, to them, feels like suicide. Choice three will disappoint fans. It seems they are going with choice two for now. The proposals from the league reflect this. But they seem comfortable with not playing at all as well. The players don’t seem to be backing down either.

The problem with losing the season is that it will damage the brand of baseball. Before the shutdown in 1994, baseball saw saw an average of 31,256 per game. In 1995, it was 25,021. In the 25 years after the strike, baseball average attendance broke the 1994 level only 3 times. CBS gave up broadcasting baseball, and in 1994 and 1995 we were given the Baseball Network. This ill-fated venture saw blackouts during pennant runs and playoff games only available on a regional basis.

There is concern that Major League Baseball will damage its future again. Buster Olney wrote about that very topic:

They have to understand how baseball might need a generation or two — decades — for some fans to forget or forgive this ill-timed squabble over money, at a time when so many have lost jobs and increasingly struggle to meet the cost of shelter and food. Baseball’s owners and players can’t be so deeply mired in distrust and doctrine that they don’t see this — right?

It’s not clear that either side has any concern for how this dispute looks to its fans. They don’t see how a lost season will damage its brand. Maybe it is because no one sees this as damaging to the brand.

Minor league baseball is an experience, but not really for the talent that is displayed. Baseball’s future stars are really few and very spread out in the lower levels. If you have 10 players expected to play at the major league level in your system, then it’s one of the top five systems in baseball. Below Double-A, pitchers can’t really throw strikes and hitters can’t lay off balls. Triple-A has pretty good competition, as Major League teams stash their many relievers at that level. But the big draws are the promotions, the food, the beer, and the atmosphere. I don’t want to understate the importance of the minor leagues. It is the only pipeline for Major League talent. But to most of those in attendance, minor league baseball is a carnival with a baseball game in its center. I mean, allegedly some people didn’t know the difference between the Atlanta and Gwinnett Braves before the Triple-A affiliate’s name change.

So I guess everyone sees Major League Baseball the same way. Maybe it’s just an excuse to drink beer. Maybe it’s just an excuse to spend some unconnected time with family. Maybe it’s only about Dodger Dogs and baseball helmet nachos. It can’t seem to live without its clubhouse store, its parking fees, and its unique food options. So in that light, how do you damage its reputation? A work stoppage wouldn’t hurt baseball’s image, it would just mean that the carnival isn’t stopping by for a while. It appears that MLB sees itself as a baseball-themed entertainment experience.

I do not share this view. I place baseball with a higher regard that this. And I don’t need an excuse to drink beer. Nor do I need one to spend time with my family. Some owners covet a World Championship higher that any other goal. And it’s true that some players really, really want to win a World Series. Other players would give every fiber of their being to continue playing baseball, or in some cases, just to appear at all.

I guess we’re all suckers.