Matteo: ‘Don’t cry for me major leaguers…’

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

“… the truth is, I never left you.”  But actually, you did.  You left us when your egos became bigger than the game itself, and when you did things like selling autographs, which old-timers remember we used to get for free if we showed up early enough before a game.  You left us with the work stoppages, and you left us, the fans, when the game became more about dollars and cents than about balls and strikes.  You left us when owners and players decided that their needs and desires were more important than playing the games that made the game great in the traditions of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and so many other greats from the past.   

Given current affairs, if there was a Broadway musical about stories that dominate the news (including the major league lockout), my article title and first 7 words could be the title and lyrics for one of the songs.  Today, there is a crisis in Ukraine, and innocent people are dying.  Inflation is out of control, and people joke about spending ten dollars for gas to be able to drive the distance from pump 1 to pump 3 and fill up again.  There is a crisis at the border, and the president of the United States can’t tell the difference between Ukrainians and Iranians. Yet, many people are focused on negotiations between major league baseball owners and the players association, which has already caused the cancellation of regular-season games, and threatens to cancel the entire baseball season during a time when watching a sport would be a nice distraction from real-world events.

In the grand scheme of earth-shattering events, baseball (a sport I grew up to love) is disposable.  When most people are struggling to pay their bills, millionaires and billionaires are negotiating about how to divide massive revenues, which will inevitably come from fans who are the ones who pay outrageous ticket and food prices in ballparks, and whose viewership leads to fat TV contracts for baseball games enabling those involved to have lavish lifestyles far beyond the income level of the ordinary American.  

There are a variety of issues that prevent games from being played as owners and the players association sit at the collective bargaining table.  One early sticking point in the negotiations had to do with raising the minimum salary.  Owners proposed a minimum salary of $615,000 for a player with less than one year of service, and the union proposed it to be $775,000; both figures are salaries that the majority of working Americans would drool at to play a game.  Sure, those who make it to the major leagues have special skill sets, but so do good teachers, who would have to add up many years to accumulate that sum of money.  

Throughout the decades, baseball has been referred to as the “national pastime.” America has endured wars, recessions and even an economic depression that lasted for over a decade.  Yet, during that time people found tickets to the ballpark (and also to the movies) as a way to escape their economic woes for a few hours.  The ticket was affordable and even if fans had very little money, they would attend games, root for their heroes and hope their team would win, before they had to enter back into the reality of sad times and empty wallets.  This sentiment is beautifully characterized by the “People Will Come, Ray” speech from the movie Field of Dreams, which was beautifully delivered by James Earl Jones as Terrance Mann. “…The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.  Owners and players are quick to point out that baseball is a “business,” however, it’s so much more than that to so many average Americans, as evidenced by the above quote, which struck a nerve with many people who watched Field of Dreams.  Those who make the decision to put an entire season at risk have obviously forgotten that it is fan support that keeps them in business.  They have forgotten that they exist because fans, who make a fraction of what players and owners earn, will pay hundreds of dollars to take a family to a game, pay exorbitant prices for hot dogs, beer and parking to escape for a few hours, but when they return home realize that the money spent at the ballpark probably would have been spent on groceries or to fill up their gas tank, so they can travel to work.  

There have been strikes and issues in the past, and fans reacted with a token show of disgust by not showing up to a few games, but, like a spouse returning to an abusive ex, they returned, forgave owners and players and once again filled stadiums.  

As a kid, I used to exit my home and could smell spring in the air, which meant baseball for me and many other kids.  There was no better feeling than being handed a brand new baseball and stepping on a field to try and imitate the heroes of that era.   I remember clipping milk cartons for coupons that would allow me to purchase a nosebleed seat at Shea Stadium, and I could spend under $10 and see a doubleheader, eat a hot dog, drink a Coke and have enough for carfare to get on the number 7 train in Queens to get back to my home in Brooklyn.  It is a fond memory that I will always cherish.  

There are no $10 doubleheader experiences anymore and the combination of rule changes and there is a financial coldness to a game that once exuded warmth because of the way modern-day owners and players view the game.  In the past kids talked about great plays made on the field.  Today, they talk about the megabucks players make and calculate the thousands of dollars per pitch.  It’s all about money, and it’s sad to see that the owners and players fail to see how their choices hurt the small businesses in the Grapefruit (Florida) and Cactus (Arizona) Leagues that depend on the exhibition season to make ends meet.  

In a world where there is so much pain and suffering, it’s hard to take seriously anyone who laments or wrings their hands over the delay or even cancellation of the current baseball season because a bunch of selfish individuals decided to take something that has been traditionally good and turn it into what can only be described as a pissing contest between owners and players.

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