It was eight years ago that the boys of summer traded their wooden bats for picket signs and initiated a strike that would result in the first cancellation of the World Series since the format was formalized in 1905.
Not only did that strike cost Montreal what would likely have been their first National League pennant and World Series championship, it critically wounded professional baseball in its most vital of organs it seems that the fans, the lifeblood of the game, were not as diehard as the players and owners had believed.
Overall attendance dropped in major league ballparks, and then recovered three years after the strikes, but for some teams the fans never came back.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who boasted World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, were one of those teams.
The SkyDome used to break baseball attendance records almost nightly, and the city emerged as a respectable baseball town. It was unusual to have less than 30,000 people at a Blue Jays game, even against the worst teams in the league. Now it is a rare event for the club to play to more than 20,000 fans. Worse, television ratings in Toronto are at their lowest since the franchise opened in 1977. The team lost in excess of $55 million US last year, and expects to lose about the same this year, with a payroll of $70 million US to support.
Now major league baseball owners want to take drastic measures. The 30 league franchises claim to have lost $238 million US last year. Even the World Series champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks, lost nearly $20 million US.
The owners say the economics of the sport have changed. Not every team can boast a fan base like the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers any longer, and only a handful of teams can afford a payroll over $100 million US. The result is that teams either have to cough up the eight-digit salaries that the top players are demanding, or accept the fact that they dont have a snowballs chance in hell of making the World Series. The fans know pointless when they see it, and they stay away in droves.
At the same time, the last major league player contracts expired last November, and the players are once again threatening to strike if their demands arent met not now of course, but in the fall when the playoffs are in full swing.
The major league issues are major league contraction (eliminating poor performing teams like Montreal, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Florida and Tampa), a "luxury tax" on teams with payrolls in excess of $98 million, increased revenue sharing, and more flexible salary arbitration for teams.
Needless to say, owners and players dont see eye-to-eye on any of these issues. Players dont want to sign on to anything that could somehow result in lower salaries or could limit their ability to sign on with the highest bidder. Owners dont want to give the players more power than they already have.
Its a pickle all right, and the fans are caught in the middle once again.
For me, baseball is already on probation after the last strike action. The revelation that the home run derby of recent years was fuelled by steroids and growth hormones, the unprecedented $250 million-plus US contract given to Alex Rodriguez, and the daily team-swapping and manager bashing of players like pitcher David Wells have not improved my outlook. For me, another strike is strike three for baseball.
Im not alone here. According to a recent survey, more than 88 per cent of baseball fans said they would participate in a boycott of the sport until a labour agreement could be reached that worked for all parties, fans included. They would rather go without the sport than see things continue down the same road.
While baseball would probably survive in the more fanatical cities like New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco, some of the more disenfranchised franchises could be forced to move or close down entirely.
And all because they forgot about the fans.
The same fans who already think players are greedy and that owners are charging too much for tickets and hotdogs. The same fans who have already discovered, thanks to the 1994 baseball strike, that theres more to life than the Grand Old Game.
Like football The NFL is a far better and more balanced league since the owners brought in profit sharing and salary caps.
Like basketball The Lakers dynasty aside, a salary cap has made the league more competitive for all teams. Players are even taking salary cuts to make their teams more competitive.
Like lacrosse This traditional sport is taking off across Canada and parts of the U.S. despite the fact that most of the players are only earning between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. Wages will go up substantially to reflect attendance, merchandising, and television deals, but the players were willing to play for a pittance now to build the sport for the future.
Id like to include hockey on this list of baseball alternatives, but teams like the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are sucking the same lifeblood out of the game by upping salaries and attempting to buy their way into the playoffs. Would the Red Wings have won the cup this year without the expensive, 11 th hour acquisition of free agents Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille, and Brett Hull?
In September 2003 the NHL Players Association contract with the NHL expires, and the players association is adamantly opposed to salary caps or anything that would impact on their ability to make more money. While there is still another season to go before a decision needs to be made, there is a good chance that the two sides will be unable to hammer out an agreement without any job action.
Thats not to take the side of the owners. They are businessmen, and like all businessmen, they are always looking for ways to keep costs low and profits high. Back in 1981, before the players were unionized, baseball players earned an average salary of $55,000 US. Last year the average salary was $2.38 million US. Somewhere between the two figures there is a reasonable middle ground.
Sports fans are typically blue collar, work hard to put food on the table, and dont believe anyone is worth $10 million a year, no matter how good they are. A long time ago the fans put two and two together and figured out the connection between rising ticket and concession prices and rising salaries.
Yet the fans continue to watch and shell out for tickets because the sports themselves are worthwhile. Despite evidence to the contrary, they cling to the redeeming belief that the love of money is still secondary to the love of the game to professional athletes.
A strike in baseball or hockey will shatter that belief once and for all.