ATLANTA — Baseball's last labor dispute was devastating, but the comeback had two big things working in its favor.
Cal Ripken Jr. and steroids.
The sport won't be so fortuitous if this lockout lingers into the spring.
For the national pastime to maintain some semblance of its former glory, we better be talking about WAR and slash lines instead of the CBA and luxury tax rates by the time the Super Bowl is over.
The brouhaha that came to a head this week with the owners locking out the players is a mere sideshow at the moment, overshadowed by the NFL playoff races and the biggest games of the college football season.
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With basketball and hockey also ramping up, there's plenty to keep sports fans distracted for the next couple of months while the two sides haggle over the details that most of us couldn't care less about.
"This is peak college football season, and the NFL has all sorts of cool narratives," said Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "This is a good time from a strictly negotiation point of view for the owners to play a little hard ball."
All that changes if an agreement hasn't been reached by mid-February, when the dawn of spring training still serves as a symbolic end to the long, dark winter.
The situation is even more tenuous with baseball still trying to bounce back from the COVID-shortened 2020 season, which was played largely in empty stadiums.
"Losing two out of three opening days would be brutal," Lewis said.
Some will argue the sport never fully recovered from its last labor dispute, which wiped out the 1994 World Series and dragged on for nearly eight months.
They're probably right, but baseball caught a huge break when two compelling storylines lured many leery fans back to the ballparks.
First, there was Ripken's pursuit of one of the most hallowed records in all of sports.
In September of 1995, just five months after the strike petered out, Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's mark by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game. It was a moment that mesmerized the nation, and undoubtedly healed some of the game's self-inflicted wounds.
Coming off the strike, baseball conveniently looked the other way while its hitters transformed themselves into Incredible Hulks.
The ball started flying over the fence at a stupefying rate, culminating in the home-run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that captivated the nation through the summer of 1998.
We know now that it was nothing more than a chemically enhanced farce, forever sullying the reputations of McGwire, Sosa and anyone else who thrived during the Steroids Era, including career home run leader Barry Bonds.
But at the time, the McGwire-Sosa duel was just what baseball needed to lure back even more of its fan base.
It's hard to envision a similar scenario this time around.
For one, the game's popularity is even more diluted than it was a quarter-century ago. Many young people have turned away from baseball, viewing it as staid and old-fashioned in an increasingly fast-paced world filled with shinier entertainment options.
Anyone who has sat through a four-hour-plus game - filled largely with players going through meaningless gyrations instead of any real action - would find it hard to counter that viewpoint.
Lewis recently conducted a survey that looked at the evolving state of sports fandom in America.
Every sport has taken a hit, he said, but baseball "has essentially crashed" among Generation Z, those born since the last labor stoppage.
"It's really a mismatch on multiple levels," he said. "That generation wants to look at content on their phone. They want to get their highlights on Instagram and TikTok. Baseball is built on local markets and people sitting in a stadium for three or four hours. The technology, the marketing of the game — whatever it is — has really created a disconnect with young people, and particularly young males, in baseball."
Also, the baseball stars of the 1990s were more prominent figures than today's players.
Ripken's wholesome image propelled him to almost mythical proportions as he pursued the Iron Horse's record. McGwire and Sosa appeared together as Greek gods on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
In today's far more complex media landscape, baseball's biggest names - whether it's Mike Trout or reigning MVPs Shohei Ohtani and Bryce Harper - simply don't have the gravitas of those in other sports.
Lewis pointed out that NBA star LeBron James has 103 million followers on Instagram.
Trout, Ohtani and Harper have 4.8 million — combined.
"The 1990s was a different media era. The coverage was very concentrated," Lewis said. "It was also an era where Major League Baseball personalities were still at the level of superstars in other leagues. In the pre-social media era, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were as big as anybody in the NBA or the NFL. That's not the case anymore."
There's another obstacle that baseball faces, even without a labor dispute.
Baseball — unlike every other sport, with the possible exception of the NHL — is not nearly as attractive to watch as it was decades ago.
Not only are the games longer, but front offices driven mainly by analytics have created 30 cloned franchises — teams all playing essentially the same style, with an emphasis on homers and defensive shifts and constant pitching changes.
There is no longer room in today's homogenized MLB for a World Series like the one in 1982, which matched a homer-happy Milwaukee Brewers team known as "Harvey's Wallbangers" against a St. Louis Cardinals team that emphasized speed and defense.
Led by sluggers Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie and Cecil Cooper, the Brewers hit 216 homers that season. The Cardinals had just 67 — only two players even reached double figures — but they knocked off Milwaukee in a seven-game World Series.
This past season, 12 teams hit more than 200 homers; only two teams had fewer than 150.
Baseball does have some advantages over other sports, Lewis said.
"Sure, baseball has some challenges with an older fan base," he said. "But baseball also has more kids going to major league parks than any other professional league. There's more of a family connection in baseball. It's a game that almost has more of a wholesomeness to it than other sports. That's got some power."
If baseball wants to maintain that connection, it needs to settle this labor dispute before anyone really notices.
A deadline to keep in mind is Feb. 14.
The day after the Super Bowl.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
Swinging away: Brewers maintain aggressive approach to roster building despite past strikeouts
January 2018: Signed Matt Albers to 2-year, $5 million contract
Albers was coming off a career-best season in which he went 7-2 with a 1.62 ERA in 63 appearances for the Nationals when Stearns signed him to help bolster a young bullpen.
Early on, the move looked brilliant as Albers posted a 1.93 ERA through his first 24 appearances. He got knocked around hard his next time out, allowing five earned runs in a loss to the Cubs that resulted in a stint on the injured list. He returned six weeks later but made only one appearance, allowing three runs, before landing back on the IL and posting a whopping 23.63 ERA in eight appearances after he returned in August.
Things didn't go much better in 2019, either. Albers posted a 5.13 in 67 games and became a free agent after the season but hasn't pitched in the big leagues since.
June 2018: Traded JiMan Choi for Brad Miller
Milwaukee signed Choi to a minor league deal to provide depth at first base and he forced his way onto the Opening Day roster by batting .409 with three home runs, 10 RBIs and a 1.245 OPS in 27 Cactus League games.
He became expendable when Jesus Aguilar, who also played his way onto the roster with a mammoth spring, seized the starting job at first after Eric Thames' injury. So Stearns dealt Choi to Tampa for Miller, who was hitting .256 with five home runs and 21 RBIs while playing both first base and the outfield.
"At this point we thought that the positional versatility and the infield experience that Miller brings would be helpful," Stearns said. "He will head to Triple A, and when we have a need, I'm sure he will be ready to contribute."
Miller appeared in just 27 games and batted .230 with two home runs and a .666 OPS before he was designated for assignment on July 28.
July 31, 2018: Traded for Jonathan Schoop
Stearns was reminded of one of his biggest busts Monday when Tigers infielder Jonathan Schoop put Milwaukee in a 1-0 hole with an RBI single off Corbin Burnes.
Stearns sent infielder Jonathan Villar and two prospects to Baltimore for Schoop at the trade deadline in 2018, despite having planned to shift Travis Shaw to second after Milwaukee acquired third baseman Mike Moustakas in an earlier deal.
By pairing the right-handed Schoop, who was hitting .244 with 17 home runs at the time of the deal, with Shaw, a left-handed slugger, Stearns thought he had the makings of a formidable tandem.
"Really, what it comes down to for us is we think we're getting better and we think we're adding to our overall depth," Stearns said at the time.
The move backfired as Schoop hit .202 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 46 games then went 0-for-8 in the playoffs leading Stearns to non-tender him after the season.
“Look, it was a bad deal, and that’s on me," Stearns said. "We made a trade for a player we thought was going to be here for basically a year and a half, and I was wrong.”
As for the players Stearns gave up in the deal, only Villar is in the big leagues this season. After batting .270 with 61 stolen bases and a .777 OPS in 216 games for the Orioles, he was traded to Miami in December 2019 and then to the Blue Jays at the deadline in 2020.
He signed with the Mets in February and is batting .231 in 41 games this season.
Dec. 20, 2019: Signed Justin Smoak to 1-year deal
Stearns opted against picking up a $7.5 million option to bring back Eric Thames and instead took a chance on switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, whose power from the left side projected to play well at American Family Field, with the idea of him sharing time at first base with Ryan Braun.
The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted those plans, though. When the Brewers returned from their hiatus, Braun was shifted into the designated hitter role leaving first base to Smoak, who never got his bat going and was designated for assignment after batting .186 with five home runs and a .642 OPS in 33 games.
"You never completely know when it is the right time, especially in a season like this," Stearns said at the time. "There is some feel involved in this.
"Determining whether and the likelihood of a player snapping out of a slump is always a really tough judgment call. In this case, with the volume of playing time that Justin had to try to get this going and where we are in the season, we felt like it was the right time."
Smoak's release came just weeks after Stearns cut ties with utility man Brock Holt, who signed his own one-year deal early in Spring Training but was let go after he hit .100 in just 16 games.