The past two years have moved me to question words like usually or familiarly. So I am not sure what to use to explain that traditionally? Historically? This paragraph would begin with either a Port St. Lucie or Tampa dateline.
Standardly — another one of those words there — I would be trying at this very moment to remember which players had told me they were in the best shape of their lives and which were far ahead of schedule with their injury rehab. I would be shaking hands — remember when we did that? — playing catch-up and acting like I really cared about the (fill in the blank — hunting, fishing, golfing, gambling, etc.) story that was now entering minute four without yet reaching the promised funny part.
If it were Yankees camp, there already would be a new access rule in defiance of MLB edicts being enforced by a security guard who idolizes Paul Blart. If it were Mets camp, there would be word passed around of, finally, a decent restaurant opened in town with all the cloudy details of a Bigfoot sighting.
It would be monotonous and infuriating — and, boy, do I miss it.
Regular (another one of those words) spring training was cut short in March 2020 due to a pandemic sweeping the globe. COVID-19 limiting media access to personnel plus a sick father kept me away last spring. Now, the virus is still with us, but that is not why major league camps remained shuttered on Wednesday, which would have been the official first day pitchers and catchers could work out; a day in which I likely would have been trying to explain why both exhilaration and trepidation in Mets camp begin with the right arms of Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, or musing about the walk-year final Yankees chapter in the saga of Gary Sanchez.
Or maybe Buck Showalter or Aaron Boone would have offered insight to set off a pursuit in another direction, or something catches your eye — which is why you deal with the food options in St. Lucie and the security guy in Tampa. To be there. At this time of year. To see Francisco Alvarez up close for the first time. To begin to try to assemble a belief system on Nestor Cortes Jr. — aberration or revelation? And, yes, to hear the damned, too-long fishing story because the rhythms (another of those words) of the sport (if you love it) provide a comfort like the opening chords of a favorite song.
But the rhythms have been mangled in recent years. This time by a lockout that began Dec. 2. MLB said the implementation was designed to heighten urgency and accelerate negotiations. That, in hindsight, is funnier than any of those hunting or fishing stories. There have been five negotiations on core economic issues in 2 1/2 months. The sides left the fifth on Saturday still far apart.
Thus, the ninth work stoppage in MLB history and the first in 26 years has now delayed the beginning of spring training 2022. There are perhaps two weeks to reach an agreement before the chances of starting the regular season as scheduled on March 31 also will vanish. There is perhaps a month to make sure regular-season games are played on April 15. That is the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Is that diamond anniversary — a diamond seemingly fitting for this sport — going to become collateral damage to this labor fight? Is the sport really not going to be played on essentially the game’s national holiday?
I am not writing this to suggest either side capitulate or that negotiations are easy or to offer solutions. Just here to personalize some of the loss and to use whatever bully pulpit this column provides to urge the sides to get to the finish line. Because I am old enough (unfortunately) to know it will have a finish line, despite the current entrenched hatred and intractable positions. I have covered labor-disrupted springs in the past, searching South Florida to find where Alvaro Espinoza was working out in 1990 and infuriating scab players by not taking them seriously in the replacement camps of 1995.
I would say this feels different than then. Baseball feels further out of the national discussion. There are more channels, social media and just more distractions. This will not be the death knell of MLB, but residing in a realm in which you are either out of sight/out of mind or antagonizing your paying base has a thousand papercut feel to it. How much do you want to bleed: forcing fans to try to recoup money lost from spring-training plans now awry? Losing Opening Day? Not celebrating Jackie Robinson Day on regular-season fields with all players wearing 42?
I hope both sides feel this pressure. There is a fair deal to be made. Get in a room more frequently and make it. Millions of folks still love this sport and want to wrap their arms around it. One of them is in downtown Manhattan today looking forward to a time soon when he will be joyously bored out of his mind by an offseason fishing story.