Major League Baseball is about to hit a crossroads this week. We'll likely know if there's any chance of our national pastime having a season in 2020 over the next few days. MLB's owners and players need to make some tough decisions and the results of their negotiations could impact the game for a long time. It's the most daunting week the league has faced since the 1994-95 strike.
The owners and players have both presented proposals for how to hold a 2020 season and, frankly, they appear to be living in two different universes. It's hard to see how they bridge the gap between their enormous differences. The owners want the players to take steep pay cuts to play half a season, while the players want prorated salaries and a 114-game season. There are some points where both sides would likely be willing to bend, but they also both appear entrenched on economic issues.
It's worth noting that after the 1994-95 strike, baseball faced a steep decline in interest for several years. Many fans checked out, thinking the owners and players were far too greedy to warrant their attention. The 1998 season brought fans back in droves thanks largely to the dramatic home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire -- though we later learned that drama was fueled by steroid use. Still, it took an almost perfect baseball season packed with excitement to get fans back. Could the sport really count on lightning striking twice like that? The simple answer is no.
Major League Baseball can't just cancel the 2020 season and hope something magical will happen to keep fans interested. Sosa and McGwire are not walking through that door.
If the two sides can't come to an agreement it's a safe bet fans will check out again. The NBA and NFL are gung-ho about returning to action. And, let's face it, as far as drama and individual stars go, both of those leagues have far surpassed Major League Baseball at this point. There's hope for baseball to have those crossover stars in a young generation of exciting prospects, but as of now the guys at the top aren't exactly driving headlines. The average American can't name a single fact about Mike Trout's personal life and he might be the best player everr through his first 27 years on the planet. That's not good for the health of the sport.
Baseball may not be played this season. That's a fact fans have to be prepared for. If so, the owners and players must understand they'll likely be hamstringing the long-term health of the sport. Revenues will decline for the owners and, as a result, salaries will likely decline for the players. An argument could be made for both sides to lose money this year to ensure cash flow in the future.
When the 1994 season was stopped, fans were robbed of what could have been a magical conclusion. The Montreal Expos appeared headed for a finish that might have saved baseball in the city. Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 and he and everyone who knew him believes he was going to hit .400. Matt Williams and Ken Griffey Jr. both topped 40 home runs when the season was ended on August 11. Could they have chased Roger Maris' mark of 61 before Sosa and McGwire? We'll never know. Even to this day 1994's lost season remains a black eye for the sport, and fans never forgave MLB's leaders for cutting that season short.
The owners and players will be discussing the future of baseball a lot this week. As they do, it would be best if they remembered the past.