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Lockout gives fan a chance to enjoy real baseball

March 15, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.

By Joe Guzzardi

Disgusted and indignant fans have a message for near-universally detested MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the league's billionaire owners, and its pampered, overpaid players – Take your overpriced tickets, tasteless hot dogs, and warm, flat beer and stuff them.

The commissioner, owners and players have grievously misjudged the baseball nation's post-pandemic, inflation-ravaged, Ukraine war-anxious mood. The last thing baseball bugs want to hear is well-heeled, privileged elitists carping about their lot and the perceived injustices they're suffering.

The whiners have forgotten that fans have plenty of baseball options, all better than getting fleeced and bored stiff at the old ball park, where game times average over three hours.

High school, junior college and NCAA college games are underway. Parking at some venues is free, and the proceeds from concessions go right back to the athletic department to help buy equipment and defray travel expenses, not to further enrich billionaires.

Junior college provides a launching pad for players who aspire to Division 1 and represents an opportunity for them to get bigger, stronger, better and catch the attention of scouts. Among the JUCOS who became MLB superstars are Jackie Robinson, Albert Pujols, Kirby Puckett, Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada and Bryce Harper.

At D-1 baseball, the skill level is high. Last weekend, No. 1 ranked Texas and UCLA, Tennessee, Louisiana State and Oklahoma State – all major programs – played in the nationally televised Shriners Children's College Classic. The teams played nine inning doubleheaders. The Longhorns have a rich history that sent Roger Clemens, Brandon Belt, Huston Street and others to the bigs. The Bruins have placed 28 UCLAns in the Big Show, including standouts Brandon Crawford, Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer.

Take today's young players out of their collegiate uniforms and put them in MLB jerseys, and few fans would notice any drop off in the quality of play. Pitchers throw 90 mph-plus, the fielders make wide-ranging plays, and batters hit with power.

At the collegiate level, coaches stress fundamental baseball, something sorely lacking in the big leagues. University of Southern California's late, legendary coach Rod Dedeaux's guiding philosophy: "Never make the same mistake once." Dedeaux's students listened. During his 45 years as USC coach from 1942 to 1986, Dedeaux's teams won 11 CWS titles, including five in a row. Many Trojans went on to stellar MLB careers: Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire, Dave Kingman and Fred Lynn.

For televised baseball, viewers have lots of offerings. ESPN will air the top NCAA teams between now and June 27, the date the College World Series ends. If MLB isn't back in action for the summer months, then fans can check out the 76 Independent League teams. The season ticket package for the Independent League Chicago Dogs is a better value than a single seat at the Cubs' Wrigley Field, average ticket price $83.

The casual, fun times that Independent League baseball offers are available from coast to coast: the Bakersfield Train Robbers, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Milwaukee Milkmen and the New York Boulders. Some teams offer "kids eat free" games, an anathema to MLB owners who charge eye-popping prices for food and beverages. True fans know that the game is the thing, not the guys who play it.

Negotiations between the owners and the players are going poorly. They resent and distrust each other. Even though they sign the checks, the owners can't believe the salaries players earn. Money flows so freely in baseball that the Washington Nationals' 24-year-old outfielder Juan Soto rejected a $350 million, 13-year extension. Soto's reasoning: when he becomes a free agent after the 2024 season, he anticipates he can ink a $500 million deal.

No one knows when the ugly, take-no-prisoners negotiations will end. The only certainty is that baseball, already losing fans to professional football, basketball and soccer, has sustained another black eye, something it can ill-afford. The old-fashioned, field of dreams romantic vision of baseball as the national pastime, with fathers and sons playing backyard catch, is gone forever. In its place stands the image of nasty haggling over whether players' minimum annual salaries can reach $755,000 or whether they'll have to settle for the owners' $640,000 offer.

Bob Leach, who played for Dedeaux on the Trojans' 1974-1976 teams wrote this about his coach: "Most of us players thought we were in training to become major leaguers. In reality, we were all serving an internship for life. In addition to making great baseball teams, he was more importantly passing on his wisdom and experience so that we could succeed in any setting."

Too bad that Dedeaux's understanding of the human condition hasn't reached the majors.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers' Association member. Contact him at [email protected].

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