Baseball's clean, fresh slate in jeopardy if labour issues progress

Ben Nicholson-Smith joined Sportsnet Central to talk about the Blue Jays’ target of returning to Toronto by July 30th, and touched on the Yankees’ positive COVID tests that resulted in a postponement.

They’re sexier and flashier than any generation of ballplayers I can remember, but none of Major League Baseball’s bright young things will become transcendent cultural figures the way the NBA’s best become transcendent.

That’s less on the players than it is on the game and our fractured and diminishing attention spans. I don’t know how or if baseball gets it back, unless its stop-start nature and rammed, nightly schedule allows the brave new world of in-game wagering to propel it back to the forefront.

But for that to happen, here’s what cannot happen:

Rob Manfred and Tony Clark – nah, it’s 99 per cent on the commissioner and ownership – cannot let the game shut down in 2022. If that means somehow extending the current agreement to give themselves greater post-pandemic runway? At least talk about it.

I’ll admit that at the best of times, I’m a huge skeptic when it comes to baseball labour. The strained atmosphere of these past two seasons has left me feeling more uncertain than ever before about the ability of baseball to avoid a stoppage, whether it’s a strike or lockout. I haven’t felt this skeptical since the 1994 strike.

Baseball’s steroid crisis created a sense of shared doom on the part of ownership and players. You’d think a pandemic would do as well, but instead of unifying behind a common cause, the sides conducted an unseemly public spat at a time when people were dying.

I know in the end it’s a fight over money and control and most everything else turns out to be background noise … but this doesn’t auger well.

And look at what’s at stake: For the first time in decades, baseball has a generation of 20-something players unsullied by steroids or past labour crises. Indeed, if the All-Star Game was an indication, it feels as if the sport has been given a clean, fresh slate.

Fernando Tatis Jr.; Vladimir Guerrero Jr.; Ronald Acuna Jr... I think you get the point. Shohei Ohtani. Bo Bichette. Juan Soto. They look like our wider society. They talk like our wider society. The game has, frankly, not just one star to suit your tastes: it has multiple stars from multiple countries with multiple sensibilities. None of them have gone on strike. All have come up in an era of PED testing, which at least suggests a little less impropriety.

Barry Bonds has been out of the game since 2007. Roger Clemens since 2007. Alex Rodriguez? Gone since the 2016 season. The only time anybody talks about Bonds and Clemens is in the month leading up to Hall of Fame voting and that’s coming to an end. Dodging A-Rod is more difficult thanks to TV, but at least there’s a sense he’s less harmful and toxic than he is ditzy. Gone, too, are other players who survived on the fringes of PED use – who got the hell out of Dodge either by plan or the march of time. Guys we may have suspected but lost interest in pursuing because it just stopped being front of mind. Too much morality is tiring. And boring.

Baseball has finally removed most of its unwanted house-guests and the issues it faces within the game, for all the debate around them, are less existential than steroids. Some things about the sport can’t be overcome and were a factor before and after steroids. Baseball is a regional sport based on regional TV payments and in-stadium attendance, which means the stars on the West Coast will be playing at least half their games out of the eastern prime time TV window and the stars in the east will be playing during supper time or the evening commute in L.A. Its schedule is loaded and based on series and not one-offs which means the Los Angeles Angels might be coming to your city for four games but you still might not get to see Ohtani pitch. Other things – the use of Spidertack, the impact of the shift, pace of play and moves to increase offence? They require a great deal of thought, negotiation and experimentation but unlike steroids, it’s doubtful there will be Congressional hearings on these issues.

And so we head into the "second half" of the regular season with one eye on the field and another off the field. The cancelation of Thursday’s New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game due to positive COVID-19 tests stemming, it appears, from that maskless free-for-all during All-Star festivities is a reminder of what is still out there; a reminder of the ultimate wild-card that could come into play through August and into the fall months.

The Atlanta Braves made a trade before throwing their first pitch post-All Star Game, acquiring Joc Pederson from the Chicago Cubs – who along with teams such as Cleveland, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks might be preparing to unload players ahead of the July 30 trade deadline. Every contending team except, maybe, the San Diego Padres has a crying need and even the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers could find themselves facing an unseen hurdle if the sexual assault allegations against Trevor Bauer keep him out of action for the rest of the season.

Here in the American League East, we get down to business right away. Covid aside, the division-leading Red Sox play their next 17 games against the Yankees, third-place Toronto Blue Jays and second-place Tampa Bay Rays. They seem ready to push through to the deadline, calling up Top 3 prospect Jarren Duran and preparing to welcome Chris Sale back into the fold. The Yankees are on fumes… but they might get Luis Severino back if they hang in. The Rays are the Rays: they have something up their sleeve. You know they do.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, might get some much-needed pitching depth internally with the possible return of Ryan Borucki and Thomas Hatch to go with an electric lineup. They will be buyers up to the last minute; getting creative to add pitchers with controllable service time even if they don’t get close enough to play in the rental market. They should, I think, come home to the warm embrace of their fans. And that means that we will finally get to see in-person what the fuss is all about – while hoping that it doesn’t get snatched away from us again because of a strike or stoppage. They can’t do that to us, can they?

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan

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