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Baseball may never fully recover if it loses season this way

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This?

This is different.

We of a certain age still bear the scars of past labor wars, all sports. The World Series was called off in 1994. The entire NHL season of 2004-05 was canceled, every inch of it, as if the calendar were simply wiped clean. The official NFL record book is littered with names of scabs who crossed picket lines and played in actual games during the 1987 season.

Those were awful times to be a sports fan, angry times, helpless times. Strikes and lockouts are always ugly, no matter where they happen. Subway strikes have sent commuters walking across bridges. Sanitation strikes have ransacked city sidewalks. Newspaper strikes have helped dwindle the number of papers in New York from 10 to three. They cause damage. They cause hard feelings. Somehow, when they’re over, we move on.

This is different, and not only because baseball’s owners and its players are conducting this staredown in the midst of a pandemic, with 40 million people out of work, with 100,000 dead, with people desperate to reclaim their lives and their livelihoods. That makes it bad enough, yes. People have little patience for millionaires fighting billionaires anyway; now it has simply changed to zero tolerance.

But this is beyond that. By its own admission, baseball has been flailing. Its own commissioner, Rob Manfred, has scrambled to come up with ideas — some interesting, some idiotic, a lot of others in between — to make baseball more appealing, even before all of this. He declared war on the minor leagues, even before all of this. He recognized the aging and graying of the game, and its fans, even before all of this.

So this is different than 1994, when it truly felt like baseball had finally gone and poured gasoline all over itself, gone and done irreparable harm. And look: The game still pays for that. Some fans never did come back. Many simply didn’t feel the same after, even if the pull of the game couldn’t allow a full amputation.

Bad as 1994 was, baseball wasn’t yet considered damaged.

It is different now. Baseball was still a national game in 1994; it is hyper-local now, important to the cities it calls home, little more than a curiosity elsewhere. Football had already surpassed baseball long before 1994, but pro basketball has passed it since. Hockey actually lent baseball a hand by enjoying its own extended shutdown in 1994-95, and is just as locally powered as baseball.

Now, hockey is primed to feed a hungry nation its product again, no matter how weird and complicated the playoff system it has devised is. The NBA isn’t far behind, fueled by “The Last Dance” and the knowledge that the sport’s best are eager to return. Thursday we learned that the Premier League will return in mid-June; that wasn’t even a blip on baseball’s radar in 1994. It is a gale-force hurricane now.

For baseball has already forfeited the participatory advantage it used to have for decades. Kids find soccer more fun to play, and lacrosse, and basketball. For decades, baseball could safely rely on those kids to switch to baseball once they stopped playing because there were few spectating options. Not now. Baseball isn’t a birthright any longer.

Baseball is like any other struggling business: trying to adjust to an eternally shifting world, trying to craft whatever market it can. All of that was true before COVID-19, and all of that was true before the owners and the players started playing fiscal chicken with each other. It is ever more true now.

This is a new time, a new day, a new sporting order. In 1994 — and in ’85, and in ’81, and in ’72 — the world waited on baseball because that’s how the world was. That was 26 years ago. Baseball was already leaking oil. It was already hemorrhaging eyeballs, and hearts, and souls, and imaginations. The world has moved on.

These last few months, if we’ve learned to do anything it is this: We’ve figured out how to fill idle hours. We’ve found new habits, new hobbies, new interests, new distractions. If baseball thinks it can take a year off and then simply slip easily back into people’s lives, it will be in for a rude awakening. This is different

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