Will MLB's darkest day in 27 years prove just as disastrous?

On any list of darkest days in MLB history, it ranks high.

I remember it well. Because it also happened to be my 18th birthday.

I remember being crushed by the news, though I don't remember thinking it would have such long-lasting impact. The hopeful belief at the time was that some brief period of games would be lost, but the two sides would probably figure it out before too long and resume, then complete, the season.

That, of course, didn't happen. I left for college about a month later, was sad when the World Series was canceled but busy enough to not think about it too much. Until I went home to Arizona the following March for spring break.

With the strike still ongoing and the league wanting to put more pressure on the union to relent, teams invited replacement players to spring training. My father happened to know one of them, a former minor leaguer who never made it and now owned a batting cage. He was signed by Seattle, so we drove to now-demolished Compadre Stadium in Chandler to watch him and a bunch of guys in Mariners uniforms play a bunch of guys in Brewers uniforms in a fake Cactus League game.

Yeah, it was weird.

The strike mercifully ended a few weeks later, the real players took over for an abbreviated spring and a condensed, 144-game regular season began April 25. And, to be honest, I don't remember watching a whole lot of games that season.

Certainly I watched Cal Ripken Jr. break Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak on Sept. 6 and felt the same swell of emotions everyone else did at that remarkable achievement and the iconic celebration that ensued. But I don't remember watching much of the 1995 postseason. I think I even had to make a point to turn on the TV to watch the final inning of Atlanta's World Series clincher over Cleveland.

I'm fairly certain that's the only time since age seven or so I didn't watch an entire World Series from start to finish.

Yes, I came back to baseball after that. Went to games at Wrigley Field every chance I got the next three seasons before graduating. Watched the postseason religiously. Got to begin covering games as an intern. Eventually got a job covering my favorite sport full-time and am incredibly fortunate to do so 21 years later.

But not everyone came back from the strike. Baseball hasn't been quite the same since. And, sadly, it may never been quite the same again after Tuesday's news and whatever residual impact it will have on the sport moving forward.

For the first time in 27 years, MLB games have been canceled due to a labor dispute. This time, it's a league-imposed lockout instead of a player-led strike. But the emotions feel the same.

No, actually they feel worse. Because for the last 27 years, anyone who was around for the last work stoppage wanted to believe it wouldn't ever happen again, that the interested parties would recognize the damage baseball suffered from the 1994-95 strike was so great they simply could not allow it to occur again.

So much for that belief. In the end, the significant animosity between the league and its players - something that has been obvious to anyone who has followed the sport since the last collective bargaining agreement went into effect five years ago - overshadowed any realistic attempt to make a deal.

Players knew they had "lost" the last several CBA negotiations and were determined to "win" this one. The league was determined not to let them. In the process, labor victory became more important than labor peace.

And so here we are, still stuck at home on March 2, spring training ballparks in Arizona and Florida empty, the first week of regular season games already canceled, with the threat of more to come. And recognize none of this is good for anybody. None of it.

There is plenty of sentiment that major change is needed. Maybe that's true, and maybe this stoppage will eventually bring about that change.

But you know what else is true? Even in its current form, baseball is still quite popular. More than most probably realize.

Yes, ratings are down, but did you know more people watched the 2020 and 2021 World Series than watched the 2020 and 2021 NBA Finals? Did you know the lowest-rated All-Star Game in MLB history still had more viewers than each of the last 11 NBA All-Star Games? Did you know the Home Run Derby consistently gets more viewers than the NBA Slum Dunk and 3-Point contests? It's all true.

Baseball is still popular. Not as popular as football, not even close. But in today's world, nothing is, so it's not worth even raising the subject. Baseball, though, is the second most-popular sport in America, and sometimes you wish the people who control the sport acted like it.

The problem is that baseball is best consumed when it's actually being played on the field. While other leagues have turned offseason drama into a legitimate selling point, MLB still does its best marketing via the game itself. The nightly pleasure of watching a game in person at the park, or flipping on the TV or radio to keep up with your favorite team. The increased intensity of a late-September pennant race. And then the high-stakes drama of October, which becomes must-see TV.

Alas, there's been far too little on-field action for 2 1/2 years now. It's been 29 months since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, yet competitive major league baseball games (regular season and postseason) have been played in only 10 of them. And that's before a single game of the 2022 regular season was canceled.

How are baseball fans supposed to stay engaged when there's been so little opportunity to watch, well, baseball? And how will the prospect of even more games lost in the coming weeks and (gulp) months harm that relationship even more?

At times like this, it's easy for fans to say they're done with their favorite sport and vow never to return. It's also easy for owners and players to say they know those fans will be back once there are games to watch again.

And maybe that's true. Maybe baseball will still emerge from this "disastrous outcome" (to quote Rob Manfred) stronger in the long run. Maybe someone who celebrated his or her 18th birthday on March 1, 2022 won't have to forever remember it as one of the darkest days in MLB history.

But at this point, at this moment in time, how confident are you about that?

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