Season of opportunity for national pastime - NBC Sports

Season of opportunity for national pastime
Labor strife in NFL, NBA could be big boon for baseball
AP
Baseball could be poised to catch some new fans this season if the NFL and NBA face continued labor strife.
March 30, 2011, 9:03 am

The crack of bats has never sounded more rhapsodic. The aroma of freshly chopped grass has never seemed more fragrant. The bellow of "Hot dogs! Get yer hot dogs!" is a welcome change from labor rancor, or even Kimberly Bell testimony.

Because the NFL and NBA might sulk themselves into an idle fall, this could be baseball's most important season in years.

Major League Baseball begins the 2011 slate with six games on Thursday, including the world-champion San Francisco Giants visiting the Los Angeles Dodgers. That will satisfy those hardball fanatics who have been waiting patiently to feed their addiction, surviving in the interim on doses of Albert Pujols contract chatter and the occasional morsel from the McCourt divorce proceedings.

Yet when fall arrives, that's when baseball will really glow - and grow - since it could have the stage largely to itself.

Without NFL football, certainly fans of that entertainment product will concentrate on college football. But football people are football people. NFL fans are already watching college football. There won't be that much of a migration if the lockout continues through the fall.

The NBA doesn't get going until October, when training camp starts. Yet if the two sides in that skirmish are still feuding, there won't be the buzz about the prospects for the Big Three in Miami to win a title, or about Carmelo Anthony's impact with the Knicks, or the Lakers without Phil Jackson. There will just be silence.

Oddly, it is MLB, with its rich history of union-management tussles, with Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr serving as the faces of labor strife, that is enjoying a peaceful period. There hasn't been a strike since 1994-95, and the two sides seem to have come to an understanding on a soft cap and a luxury tax.

Although MLB's economic model, with its big market-small market disparity, seems to be the one in dire need of repair, it's actually puttering along nicely. MLB reported that the past seven seasons were the best-attended in its history, with revenues close to a record $7 billion.

But baseball has its attractions, too. There will be Pujols making his contract drive. The Boston Red Sox attempting to establish dominance again in the American League. The Yankees trying not to let them do that. Don Mattingly's debut as manager of the Dodgers. Tim Lincecum and the Giants trying to repeat. The Texas Rangers facing life without Cliff Lee. The Phillies facing it with him. The Carl Crawford-less Tampa Bay Rays. The Madoff-stricken Mets.

In July, when baseball interest usually begins to wane a bit because of the long season and the withering heat, fans won't have NFL training camp news. So they'll consume more baseball.

In August, the supposed dog days, when NFL exhibition games usually whet football appetites across the land, followers will instead have to snack on Cracker Jack.

In September, when NFL football interest ordinarily shifts into sudden overdrive when the regular season starts, baseball will be in its home stretch, vying for attention with college football.

And in October, when the World Series generally receives solid but not spectacular television ratings, the numbers will spike, since the only word coming out of the NFL and NBA camps will be discouraging.

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And it's looking bleak in both situations. The NFL and the NFLPA are still miles and miles apart; their disagreements over the splitting of revenue, an 18-game season and now HGH testing are profound and not easily rectified. Ditto for the NBA and its union, although those players are more likely to cave when they start missing a few Bentley payments.

As the Barry Bonds trial also reminds us, baseball's drug ugliness is over, or at least the bulk of it. Certainly there will still be cheating, but the pandemic has been halted. This is the time for a renaissance. This is a time for baseball to not only sell a terrific product to an eager audience, but to attract new customers.

Sure, there is always a chance that the parties in the NFL and NBA labor disputes will recognize that a formidable competitor is poised to muscle in on some of their business. But don't bet on it. They seem to be entrenched in their own intractability.

When autumn leaves begin to fall in 2011, baseball will have some fat pitches to hit, thanks to the NFL and NBA.

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