Think twice before you book passage to Surprise, Arizona, the spring training home of the KC Royals, for any of their early exhibition games. After Tuesday, the chances of any of those contests featuring major league players are only slightly better than George Brett coming out of retirement to take another run at .400.
That, unfortunately, seems to be the picture following Tuesday’s latest round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations. No less a reliable authority than ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports the scheduled mid-February start of spring camps is in peril. Absent a timely agreement, clubs may play spring games with minor leaguers.
That’s because the owners and players are locked in something just short of mortal combat. Neither side gives or budges much, which isn’t surprising given the union’s fervent desire to hammer out alterations to the current free agency and arbitration systems and how teams share revenues—changes Passan reports the clubs consider “non-starters.”
And amid all the incremental (at best) movement, little if anything suggests the parties to this battle are overwhelmingly concerned about delays to spring training, spring training games, or perhaps even the regular season. After the 2016 negotiations resulted in the recently-expired CBA, a deal widely considered a significant win for management after the union held the upper hand for so long, the players desperately want to retake a hill or two, while the owners like what they have and appear unwilling to give up much of their ever-growing portion of baseball’s pie.
Is baseball at serious risk of losing fans, including those of the KC Royals?
Will the game suffer from all this? Will the fans, so many of whom swear daily oaths on social media that they’ll forever turn their backs on baseball if a deal isn’t struck soon, really walk away? Will followers of the Royals, among the most loyal of fans, find other ways to pass their springs, summers and early falls?
A few may point to 2020 as an example of the game’s resilience and how fans remain loyal when clubs and players fight. That comparison, however, is as apples and oranges as apples and oranges can get it. A pandemic, not labor strife, delayed that season’s start and wiped away over half the schedule. What contemporaneous disagreements arose between labor and management, and frustrated fans for a short time, concerned how to conduct the sport in the face of COVID and were quickly overcome because the parties had a mutual interest in restarting their game quickly.
Not so now, or so it appears. The players, undoubtedly still smarting from 2016, their first significant labor defeat after decades of remarkable success, want what they consider a truly equitable share of what baseball reaps. The owners, still basking in the afterglow of their 2016 triumph, want to keep as much as they can for themselves, and it shows.
The parties will resolve this dispute sooner or later, with “later” looking more and more like the operative word. When the Royals and the 29 other clubs resume play, fans will return, just as they have after every work stoppage. Some times they’ve come back slower than they have others, but they always show up before long. The game and its allure have endured, even after the awful strike of 1994-95 sliced games from both seasons and canceled a World Series. That, and not the 2020 season, is the true measure of how labor disagreements can’t destroy baseball.
That’s the way it is. This game is resilient. And so are the fans.
Especially Royals fans.
No one knows when the MLB lockout will end. But when it does, the game will go on.