While Rome burns, Rob Manfred and MLB owners play their fiddles

With baseball nosediving, now they draw a line in the sand?

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Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions during an owners’ meeting earlier this month in Orlando.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions during an owners’ meeting earlier this month in Orlando.

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It’s not a good thing for a sport when, at the mere thought of Major League Baseball, its commissioner, his offspring, team owners, their progeny and wing-tipped collective-bargaining negotiators, the involuntary response is to shake one’s head in disgust. I suppose that’s better than the gag reflex, the way popping out to the catcher is better than hitting into a double play.

The owners locked out the players Dec. 2, and now that spring training has been negatively affected by the move and real games are in jeopardy, lots of headshaking, and some spitting up, has ensued. The sides appeared far apart on the issues (most of them having to do with money), but even if a miracle occurred, it wouldn’t change the fact that commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners are so far removed from reality that a SpaceX flight would be necessary to get them within shouting distance of it.

The reality is that baseball, the former national pastime, has lost whatever it is that had much of the country mesmerized decades ago.

Fans are now subjected to regular-season games with little action and postseason games that last four hours. If our enemies are studying this as a form of torture, I fear for the secrets that will be spilled and the accompanying national-security implications.

We’ve been through two years of COVID-19 and all the sports deprivation that came with it, as insignificant as that might be in the grand scheme of things. Why in Lou Gehrig’s name would Manfred and the owners pick now to put already exhausted fans through this? If the answer is that the pandemic took a huge bite out of profits, I’m here to tell you those losses will be nothing compared to the damage that a prolonged lockout will do to an already damaged MLB.

It doesn’t take a poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points to inform us that fans have had it with what’s going on with the sport. All you have to do is tap the shoulder of the person next to you. You’ll get an earful. The lengthy postseason games are a challenge to even the most dedicated baseball nut. Imagine what they do to fans with short attention spans and an addiction to instant gratification.

TV ratings are down, a massive problem for MLB. They’re a gauge of public interest and a measuring stick for advertisers.

Again: Now’s the time you decide to draw a line in the sand?

Some owners are thinking that the fans will come back because history tells us it’s what fans do. I agitated for Bears fans to stop supporting the team until it starts winning, but the McCaskeys surely smiled and winked, knowing that the suckers will keep coming back.

This feels different. If MLB believes fans will rush through the turnstiles when the lockout ends because they’re sick and tired of masks and booster shots, it has the whole thing backward. Those fans are sickened by the notion that, having put up with all the challenges of the pandemic, they’re now being asked to put up with no baseball for a while.

At issue between the owners and players are arbitration years, minimum-salary raises, the competitive-balance tax and . . . guess what? . . . nobody out here cares about any of it. This is like watching two guys fight over a card game while the saloon is engulfed in flames.

How can these people not see that the idea of their sport is fading away? The quaintness? The grace of it? Too many people are bored to tears with baseball. Instead of addressing what to do about games in which nothing of note happens for innings at a time, the owners complain about their bottom lines. Instead of wondering how to change a sport dominated by strikeouts, the owners wonder why a player needs that second Mercedes.

It takes two to tango, and it takes two to bring down a sport. The players are complicit in this. Baseball is dying as much for them as it is for MLB. There has to be a way to settle the matter quickly and get back to the business of figuring out how to invite fans back to the game and how to attract people whose eyes glaze over at the thought of baseball.

The situation is grim, but the combatants don’t appear to be able to see the gloom hanging over their sport. They’re too busy fighting a battle. They don’t realize that the war might already be over.

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