BenFred: Value-obsessed MLB owners better gauge fan anxiety by ignoring pandemic wake-up call Ben Frederickson

Whenever Major League Baseball decides to stop treating its fans like used sunflower seed shells and chewed gum, it has to lure them back into the stadium to buy tickets and overprice everything else.

How about a special gift to break the tension?

A custom edition foam finger would be nice. Instead of the index finger, the middle finger could stick straight up. It would be a good reminder for fans how little they mattered during this lockout. You know, in case they somehow forgot.

It happens forget. It’s my fault. I’ll be lucky if I can make it a week without losing my wallet. When I start to feel good about keeping an eye on my wallet, I realize I’ve misplaced my keys.

But I remember the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Better than I would like. I thought this is something nobody can forget. For those of us in the sports world, the period was a very stark reminder of the importance of sports fans.

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Temporarily deprived of the lifeblood of their earnings and playing on without a bang in their season, the teams suffered and the games just felt, well, blah. The screeching of nails on a blackboard is now number two on my list of the world’s worst sounds, behind those creepy fake fan noises pumped through their speakers in 2020. Last season wasn’t normal either. Remember, the Cardinals opened to a “sold out” crowd of 12,000 in Cincinnati. After all, the 2022 season should be the normal one. At least so long as baseball read the room and recognized a nation’s aversion to collective bargaining drama after two pandemic-hit seasons. But baseball didn’t read the room.

It wasted precious time, battled its way into a lockout and is now in a race to find common ground between players and owners before the cancellation of regular-season games must add to a list that has snuffed free agency wiped out from winter fan events and a (at best) mangled spring training session.

Whenever the owners get back into the conversation, instead of hiding behind human punching bag and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, the question gets asked.

How could they do that to baseball fans?

The best-case scenario is that the game’s stewards have somehow forgotten just how much a nation needs a regular season outside of their national pastime.

Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario is more likely.

They know what they’re doing and they think it’s worth it.

Are we really to believe that the leaders of a values-obsessed sport didn’t plus-minus this mess before it started?

The owners who instituted this lockout and have been cold-blooded to even the most reasonable requests from players during negotiations will do things like keep a player at AAA level for an extra week to give them a free hand years later delay. Are we really to believe that they haven’t at least considered the financial backlash that could come from the fans if the regular season is drawn? I’m sorry, I won’t buy that. Whatever cost-benefit analysis is used here has convinced the owners that this approach is worthwhile in the long run.

Although I’m not so sure if the owners did their calculations correctly. The longer this goes on, the more likely it becomes that they underestimated future fan forgiveness. Playing around with spring training is one thing. Game with the regular season? It’s a different game. Simply blaming players doesn’t work as well as it used to, and fans know who triggered the lockout.

Even die-hard fans are suffering from boiling blood now. The more people think about how they pay for the revenue that pie owners and players fight rather than play to earn, the more empty seats there could be in a potentially delayed opening day. No, it didn’t have to be. No matter what happens next, don’t forget this part.

I feel very stupid, even embarrassed, for hoping that baseball’s navigating the inevitable disaster that was the pandemic might inspire its maintainers to dodge the entirely avoidable labor disaster that everyone saw coming for years.

I will always remember thinking after spring training was canceled in 2020 that maybe, just maybe, something good could come out of so much bad for baseball.

“Baseball is a great, great sport and a great thing for people to lean on when it’s tough for any of us,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said then, on the day that the Cardinals camp was closed. “It’s the American game. Has always been. I think when baseball comes back it will be a big boost for the country to play it.

When the regular season gets mangled, they better hope they’re right if they think fans will be forgetful, too.

Updated: March 1, 2022 — 3:10 am

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