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The Toronto Blue Jays have announced that second baseman Devon Travis will be out until at least May after having surgery on his knee.
Well, thank God there are some traditions left in baseball. Travis being sent to the infirmary is one of the few predictable things left in the game.
Seriously, Major League Baseball is in the throes of a sea change that promises to alter everything from parity in the sport to the running time of games themselves. And while the deep thinkers in MLB want you to believe this is a calm, reasoned process, the truth is that evolution in baseball is so many switch-hitting monkeys at so many typewriters trying to come up with the novel Shoeless Joe.
The biggest thundercloud on the horizon is the potential for a labour disruption in the sport. The slow-motion free agency of the past few winters that resulted in a very few players waiting until spring training to rake in unspeakable riches has the rest of the players and their union simmering.
MLB Players Association director Tony Clark, himself a former player, has suggested that owners are once again colluding to restrict salaries for the superstars and drive the middle-class player out of the game. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper belied the restricting-salaries angle (Machado’s can earn up to $300 over 10 years from San Diego while Harper reaped a potential $330 million over 13 years from Philadelphia).
But enough other players who were expecting a big payday came up far short of their desires – and even then were made to wait months past the traditional December signing season. They had to eat a reality sandwich served by owners. Yes, the game is awash in money, but the distribution of that cash is a contentious issue.
The union also points out that, once again, the campaign for the World Series will start with as many as a dozen clubs – including the Blue Jays – conceding they haven’t a hope of even getting to .500. Giving up is the new upwardly mobile for teams that like MLB’s TV/digital cheques without the strain of earning them.
Clark has warned that the players will walk at the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations unless this changes.
On the positive side, the union and MLB are talking about other issues in the sport, namely the interminable length of games created by new analytics strategies and hidebound tradition. A typical Yankees-Red Sox game now goes on longer than an Oscars broadcast – with none of the idiot actors and wardrobe to mock.
So to hasten the end of games, MLB will introduce rule changes over the next two years. No, they’re not yet at the point of introducing a pitch clock. But they’re going to reduce the number of mound visits made per game, expand rosters to 26 players, limit September call-ups to three players, and institute a three-batter minimum for pitchers, which ends the situational, one-out lefthander to get righthand hitters out.
(Still no word on my peeve: the slow-as-molasses eight warmup pitches that relievers get upon entering the game. What’s the mound in the bullpen for? Substitute National Hockey League goalies don’t get warmup shots. National Football League quarterbacks don’t get to heave a few passes when they come in for injured pivots. End the travesty!)
There are other peace offerings, including a $1-million bonus to the player winning the all-star game home run derby. Big whoop. But the larger point is that the labour sides are agreeing on something in advance of the really sticky issues. Perhaps this movement will solve intractable problems of just how many teams should be allowed to tank every year.
There are too many varying markets to simulate a fair economy for 30 teams. Go to the soccer model where teams play at the level they can afford. Keep all the teams alive but let the big dogs eat in a premier division.
It will take a major disruption for MLB or any other league to admit their pursuit of salary caps and luxury taxes was a mirage. But an MLB lockout or strike could be just the ticket to inspire change.
In the meantime, Blue Jays fans will have six months – with or without Travis – to contemplate their baseball navels as the rebuilding Jays are pasted by teams that are actually trying to win.
It’s unlikely Toronto fans will ever forgive the team for its 2015-16 burst of competence. But if they have, the 2019 Mark Shapiro Cheapstakes will finish the job.
Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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