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As MLB cancels Opening Day, baseball's biggest problem may not be greed

Players need to be compensated fairly. But fixing the game should be as big a concern as divvying up the money.

On Tuesday, Major League Baseball’s billionaire owners and millionaire players failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement. This means that at the very least, the first two series of the 2022 season (around 90 games) have been canceled.

With no clear pathway in sight, more canceled games are likely. New talks haven’t been scheduled yet.

Owners locked out the players in December, meaning no baseball activities could take place until both sides agreed on issues such as the minimum amount each team must spend collectively on player salaries. (It’s currently $210 million; the owners propose $220 million and the players $238 million.) Also in dispute is the size of a bonus pool for stars who have played less than three years in the major leagues.

With no clear pathway in sight, more canceled games are likely. New talks haven’t been scheduled yet. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, MLB played an extremely truncated 60-game season. But baseball is now facing a bigger problem than a shortened season — the game itself.

Baseball at its best is a leisurely sport with no need for a time clock. The average major-league game in 1981 lasted 2 hours, 38 minutes. But over the past four decades, baseball has become bloated. In 2021, the average game lasted 3:10 — the longest ever.

It would be one thing if those extra 30-odd minutes were filled with action and excitement. That could be great. In reality, we’re getting 30 extra minutes of inertia. Players step out of the batter’s box after almost every pitch. Relief pitchers jog in, one after the other, from the bullpens. Pitchers hold the ball as if they were art class models. Too often, nothing is happening.

And not coincidentally, fewer people are watching on TV. The 2020 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays attracted a record low average of 9.78 million viewers per game. Last year’s Atlanta Braves-Houston Astros World Series attracted an average of 11.75 million viewers per game. But that’s a far cry from the average of 24.5 million viewers who watched the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees four games to three in the 2001 World Series.

Essentially, in the past 20 years, baseball has lost more than half of its World Series audience. And with an incredible number of entertainment options available, the decline of America’s former pastime is likely to continue.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a baseball hater. Baseball is the first sport I ever loved. When I was a boy in Brooklyn, my dad took me to Yankees and Mets games. I got to watch the best players and the best teams in the American and National leagues. And I remember when World Series games were played on weekend afternoons — a time accessible to all generations — which cultivated a new generation of fans. I became a Yankees beat writer for Gannett newspapers in the ’90s. My fondest sports memory is covering the climactic Game 6 of the 1996 World Series. The Yankees beat the Braves 3-2 to clinch their first championship in 18 years.

That game lasted 2 hours, 53 minutes, lightning fast compared to today’s postseason games. Some of those games are now four-hour slogs — so long that adults may not stay up to watch, and plenty of kids can’t.

Many players don’t even run hard out of the batter’s box anymore. It’s a turnoff for those of us who grew up playing in neighborhood parks to see major leaguers being so nonchalant when the average annual salary is $4.17 million and the minimum salary is $570,550.

Baseball needs an extreme makeover. Players and owners need to talk about that. Instead, owners, with their eyes on additional TV revenue, want 14 playoff teams instead of the current 10. The players union reportedly would accept 12. But why schedule a 162-game season just to eliminate 16 of the 30 teams? Even fewer people would care about baseball’s regular season. The NFL plays a 17-game season to eliminate 18 of the 32 teams. The difference? People like to watch football.

Both sides in baseball’s impasse need to be more realistic.

Baseball needs an extreme makeover. Players and owners need to talk about that.

When baseball returns, it needs a 25-second pitch clock. In decades past, pitchers had no problem throwing to catchers within 25 seconds. Make today’s pitchers do it, too. And make hitters stay in the box throughout their at-bats. Baseball needs a booth umpire to decide instant replay challenges quickly. Limit the number of meetings on the mound to two per half-inning. And get rid of the shift, in which defenses overload one side of the field, or teach players to bunt or adjust their swings to hit the ball to the opposite field. You could never stop Hank Aaron or Pete Rose with a shift.

Players don’t want a salary cap. But the NFL has one, and recently retired quarterback Tom Brady made $41 million last year. The NBA also caps player salaries. Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James will make $41 million this season. Only one baseball player has a richer contract. Mets pitcher Max Scherzer would have made $43 million, baseball’s highest average salary ever, for a full 2022 season.

Owners of teams such as the Rays, the Miami Marlins, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals would never spend that much for one player. So the stalemate is as much between free-spending owners and frugal owners as it is between owners and players.

Obviously, MLB players need to be compensated fairly. But fixing the game should be as big a concern as divvying up the money, if not bigger. As long as owners and players fail to keep their eye on that ball, people will keep finding other things to do.