The similarities to 1994 are impossible to ignore.
Longtime adversaries Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association find themselves in another staredown, this time over how to restart a sport that officially shut down March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, however, important differences should be acknowledged between now and 1994, which history remembers as the year of a strike by the players in August. It resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and postseason — meaning no World Series for the first time since 1904. All of it caused incalculable damage to the sport that went well beyond money lost.
But the 1994 dispute resolved solely around economic issues. It didn't end until March 1995, when U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, rebuked the owners with an injunction that returned the players to the field.
The primary issue was the insistence upon a salary cap from a group of owners, led by Bud Selig of the Brewers, doubling as acting commissioner, and Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox.
The current obstacles also involve economics, but they include much more. Most significant: How to safely return the sport to a country still being ravaged by COVID-19, which has infected more than 1.6 million people, killed nearly 100,000 and contributed to a staggering number of unemployed, an estimated 40 million.
It is in that environment that MLB and the MLBPA find themselves negotiating.
Dollars and no sense
If it is deemed unsafe for baseball — or any sport, for that matter — to resume because of the unpredictability of a deadly virus. Fans will be disappointed but likely will understand it.
But if baseball suffers its first lost season since ’94 because of squabbling over money . . . well, that brings us to the obvious question: They couldn’t possibly, right?
The parties, whose negotiations on financial matters soon will begin in earnest, wouldn’t be so tone-deaf as to allow that to cancel a season, would they?
Heated rhetoric from the two sides this month suggested they just might. If that indeed is the case, a cross section of experts said the damage inflicted on the game can’t be measured.
“If we assume that we have any protracted work stoppage, that would be devastating to the sport,” said Robert A. Boland, a faculty member at Penn State University’s Labor and Employment Relations School and law school. “We're kind of at a zero-level right now with all sports and interest, and there's a race to get back on the air.”
Boland (no relation to this reporter) said baseball is in “the most precarious position of the big four sports.” He cited, among other elements, the sport’s declining television ratings and, not unrelated, the aging demographic of its fans, an ongoing trend for years.
“If I were thinking about it just in terms of how gate-dependent they are, how their fan base is older and that they're struggling to find their television audience in the same way the other leagues have to some degree, those are all challenges that put it probably in the worst strategic position and the least able to sustain a long period of shutdown,” said Boland, a player agent at the start of his career.
The NBA, the first league hit directly by the virus when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11, was the first sports domino to fall when it immediately suspended operations (within a week, all organized sports and much of the country followed). The league received nearly universal praise last week when word leaked of a potential reboot in six to eight weeks in Orlando.
Baseball at the moment is not making that kind of positive splash in the headlines.
“The extent of the damage [if there’s no season] will be a function of not only how baseball handles this but how other sports leagues are perceived to have handled their own crises,” said David M. Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group and an associate professor of sports business at USC's Marshall School of Business. “Media and corporate partners need labor stability in order to maximize their investments, and any development that reinforces a sport’s inability to demonstrate this — especially in a time when most people believe we should all be rowing in the same direction — will be damaging both financially and from a branding perspective.”
Post-1994 fan fallout
One needs to look no further than what followed the ’94 strike to see the potential consequences.
MLB averaged a record 31,256 fans per game in 1994, but the number dropped to 25,021 in 1995, according to baseball-reference.com. Average attendance did not top the 1994 figure until 2006, when it hit 31,306.
The peak average came in 2007 at 32,696 (with a record 79,484,718 fans in total going to games), and it’s been a slow but steady drop since. A total of 68,494,752 fans entered big-league ballparks last season (an average of 28,198), the fourth straight season MLB has seen a per-game decrease.
Ryan J. Eckert, author of the 2016 book "A Game of Failure: The 1994-95 Major League Baseball Strike,'' said in an interview of the effect of ’94: “I would say the role baseball plays in the American national consciousness has never been the same since.”
But Eckert, who noted that the in-vogue phrase “millionaires against billionaires” entered the lexicon during that dispute, isn’t sure a definitive statement can be made one way or the other on the long-term impact with no season because of money issues.
“I mean, what was the lesson?” Eckert said. “That people were disgusted by the behavior of these millionaires and billionaires, public interest in the sport waned for a couple of years, and then it came back. And then it entered into an era that was more profitable than ever before.”
Eckert noted, as others have, that with all of its oft-discussed problems — pace of play, declining TV ratings, etc. — baseball as an industry still raked in about $11 billion, a record, in 2019.
Each side, of course, wants as large a chunk of that as it can get, but Irwin Kishner — co-chair of the Sports Law Group at Herrick Feinstein, a firm that has worked with a number of MLB teams, including the Yankees — said there should be a bigger-picture approach taken, by players especially, one that could bear fruit for both sides beyond 2020.
“I just think sports in general should be leading the way coming back,” Kishner said. “We're all in this together, to borrow an overused phrase, so the goodwill engendered by players, doing their best putting on the competition for people that are starved for content. It will create and engender such goodwill that it will be lasting.”
Not-so-level playing field
A longtime player agent, unquestionably desirous of players taking as big a percentage of the financial pie as possible, nonetheless echoed Kishner.
“A work stoppage does not work to the benefit of the players, it works to the benefit of the deeper pockets that can sustain the amount of time away, and that’s where the players are, unfortunately,” the agent said.
The agent later referenced the skyrocketing value of all sports franchises, baseball included.
“A team’s going to be worth a billion dollars after a work stoppage if it's worth a billion dollars before a work stoppage,” he said.
“I hate to say this, it isn't a fair playing field,” he continued. “Major League Baseball's owned by the owners, the commissioner's office represents the owners. So if you can keep the best interest of the game at heart and understand there’s a global reward for the industry doing well, that's kind of the position that the labor party should always keep in mind. If the industry does well, there's things that we can do to make it difficult on the owners [later].”
Neither the players nor the owners currently are reaping any rewards, but the players are receiving the brunt of the criticism from fans. That's generally been the case throughout baseball history whenever dollars enter the public discourse.
And it would be players taking it mostly on the chin again if there’s no season because of wrangling over cash.
“It was different from a fans’ standpoint, there was no doubt about that. It was cold,” YES Network’s John Flaherty said he “vividly” recalled of spring training 1995.
Flaherty, a 27-year-old member of the Detroit Tigers at the time and about to enjoy his first full big-league season in an eventual 14-year career, said, “It wasn’t the love affair that we had before. There was a little bit of resentment. The fans were hurt, and rightfully so, after missing out on a postseason and a World Series.”
While saying “I think both sides feel a responsibility” to get a deal done, Flaherty said not to undersell the perspective expressed by players — some off the record and some on the record — regarding reservations about coming back in the midst of a yet-to-be-controlled pandemic.
“The one thing about ‘94 and ‘95 is players were just waiting for a phone call saying, ‘OK, we're back. Let's go,’ ” Flaherty said. “There wasn't any thought of, should I be doing this, is it safe to do this? This is a situation where they might get a phone call that says, ‘Hey, we're ready to go.’ And now you have to look at your family and say, ‘Is this something that we or I should be doing?’ So that's a whole 'nother layer to it.”
All polled believe to varying degrees that there will be an agreement, but Eckert, having extensively researched the events of 1994-95, threw in a cautionary note.
“I think ultimately if I was a betting man, I'd say they find a way to make something happen,” he said. “But I wouldn't say it's a sure bet, as much as your logic dictates that should be.”
It took baseball 12 years to reach the average attendance figure of the 1994 strike-shortened season: