A battered nation once again at bat

During a long labor dispute that threatened the season, pro baseball had to learn a lesson about how to treat each other.

Children throw baseballs in Culver City, California, March 10.

A month after declaring war on Japan and Germany in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a letter urging him to preserve the coming season. The game is “a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens,” the president wrote, “and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

Baseball mattered, just as it did on that July day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry launched his first major league home run that day – as if to say to the astronauts, “Here you go, boys. Here’s a little piece of home.”

For any given date since the 1880s, there’s a baseball footnote. The game was always there to draw people together – to dazzle, to commemorate, or to salve. It was there through the pandemic, because baseball mattered, just as it had been after the Boston Marathon bombing. The rallying cry of a wounded city, “Boston Strong!,” was coined at Fenway Park.

For 99 days this winter, the pro baseball season was in doubt. The major league’s first labor dispute in a generation threatened a spring without its most enduring national symbol of hope. There were no offseason trades to parse, no February workouts to watch. Opening day was postponed once, and then – almost – once more. In a Los Angeles Times poll, 60% of fans said they had lost interest in the season due to the player lockout.

But the woes of the major league did not spell the end of the game. Sales of balls, bats, and gloves have been growing. The market reaches right around the globe, from New York to Nigeria. The minor league season is already underway. So are college ball, Little League, and softball leagues. In the sandlots where dreams are spoken out loud, younger versions of Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr. taunt each other until called home for supper. Because baseball matters.

And because baseball matters, the players and owners of the major league reached a five-year deal on labor conditions March 10 and saved the season. There are even hopeful signs that the dispute did some good. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the deal with a note of contrition. “One of the things that I’m supposed to do is promote a good relationship with our players,” he said. “I think that I have not been successful in that. ... It’s going to be a priority of mine moving forward.”

Older players went to bat for the guys at the margins. “It’s not about me,” said Max Scherzer, the veteran pitcher who helped negotiate better salaries for young and aspiring players. Minor league players make as little as $8,000 a year. Clubs often hold back even their brightest young prospects to prolong the day when they can demand bigger paychecks. “I’ve seen what happens to the other guys,” Mr. Scherzer told The New York Times. “Players in my position understand that there’s players in the minor leagues grinding through.”

The dispute is settled. Spring training camps are open. Fans can stop fretting over the collective  bargaining agreement, whatever that is, and get back to the issues that really matter – like that iffy checked swing call that ended last year’s playoff series between the Dodgers and Giants in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5. C’mon ump, you gotta be kidding.

Spring is coming. And baseball, for all that it’s up against, still brings it home.

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