Baseball Reflects America. Labor Strife May Reveal Just How Much

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Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

I taught an honors class, “Baseball in American Culture,” this past week at historic NBT Stadium, home of the Syracuse Mets. As I gazed out at the pristine field, one of the three best in New York State (behind the pastures used by the Yankees and New York Mets), I encouraged my students to see the sacred temple, empty that night, in all its glory.

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Watching the sun setting over the left field beer garden, it was a Field of Dreams moment, and I very much wanted my charges to believe baseball’s finest moments helped shape America. I didn’t go so far as reciting James Earl Jones’ famous speech about the steamroller (one of the all-time great cinematic moments), but I did acknowledge how Major League Baseball (MLB) has served the greater good during our national disruptions.

We got a reminder of that during the 20th anniversary commemorations of 9/11, with video clips showing us a time when the presence of the national pastime really did soothe the nation’s psyche—at least for a short while.

That idealistic, even naïve, view (by me) is fine, but I woke the next morning realizing seers and swamis were already predicting that the coming war between MLB and its Players Association would make a UFC bout look tame.

These prognosticator discussions usually provide various sound bites about the COVID-shortened 2020 season and players wanting $500 million more. Or perhaps it’s all about roster sizes.

All around the two combatants, labor lawyers have started licking their lips in anticipation of more lawsuits, threats and general mayhem. You can almost hear them saying, “Let it rain.”

On a certain level, I’m indifferent to who wins this showdown. I’m also OK if MLB and the PA conspire to take their “product” and “content” off the proverbial shelf. While strikes and lockouts are bad for every professional sports league, this much is true: Once the titans start rumbling, most of us will watch the lightsaber show with feigned interest before calmly adjusting our viewing habits. We’ll get on with life. If MLB, which has endured shutdowns in 1972, 1981 and 1994-95, doesn’t want to play baseball next April or May, many of us will spend more time with the NBA and NHL.

Do I really think commissioner Rob Manfred, acting on behalf of 30 owners (one based in Canada, mind you), will steward a significant work stoppage? Maybe. But I’m more curious about the bigger picture, wondering if MLB isn’t the perfect reflection of the United States circa 2021.

Let’s be honest. The America we see around us is fragmented. Political parties argue incessantly and work to hurt their opponents. Citizens reject vaccinations because they believe there is no truth in anything they see or hear via the media. On the environmental front, fires brought on by global warming, plus hurricanes and erosion, have shown us what we are doing to each other and our planet.

In college sports, there has been a fundamental (and monumental) shift in how we now view the amateurism of student-athletes. NCAA athletes can now leverage their names, images and likenesses (NIL), and discounting a few guardrails, approximately 500,000 college kids are thinking about how to endorse products, companies, services and brands.

It’s crazy out there. So, why shouldn’t baseball, in the form of MLB and MLBPA, represent that angst? If our national pastime is willing to embrace a civil war, one likely to leave civility in the dust, isn’t that a perfect irony? Or is it perfect harmony?

Chaos theory suggests, in a nominal way, that disorder and irregularities come to exist and aren’t as unexpected as they might appear. Said another way, while MLB may not play the 2022 season … is that as random as the media will make it sound? Is it possible a strike or a lockout is logical? A reflection of how America works things out?

For many, the business component of sport is ugly, if not unfortunate. Many just want the games played. With no politics, no discussions of revenues, profits or margins. Can’t everyone just shut up and throw strikes (or move the runner over)?

That sentiment, however charming, is not the American way. We like rebellion and fierce stances. We admire defiance until the chaos gets out of control. Then we demand resolution.

So, let’s not be surprised if MLB and its players get down in the mud and start flinging it. Most of us don’t want that, but as business practitioners, let’s also recognize how the cartoon character Pogo noted, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

Studying baseball and its role in American culture allows us to observe an ever-evolving culture continually shaping the U.S. It means owning, and owning up to, the racism that once kept players of color from participating in our national game. It encourages us to argue MLB should work harder at breaking its centuries-old gender barriers on the field, in the dugout and upstairs in the front office.

One last thing: I’m all for the owners, players and managers making more money. That’s the capitalistic American way. But let’s hope that any coming labor disruption in baseball is a true reflection of our larger aspirations, eerily fitting for the time, and not a shortsighted, greedy grab for a handful of powerful influencers.

Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and the former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League.