NEW YORK -- Talk about an October surprise. How about the first October since 1904 that there won't be a World Series?
That possibility becomes more real every day that passes without a settlement in baseball's ugly labor dispute. The baseball strike is in its third week, and there is little reason to believe that it will end in time to salvage a credible postseason.
No doubt, every attempt will be made to recoup the estimated $140 million in television revenues that were expected to spring from the fall classic, but the players and owners have set themselves up for a classic fall. It is a looming public relations disaster that could leave scars on baseball's fan following for years to come.
"I think it would be devastating," said Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, whose reputation as a clutch player was cemented in the World Series. "I think a lot of people are losing interest right now. If they settle in the next few days, OK, but if it goes into mid-September, who cares?"
Of course, a lot of people will care. In Cleveland, where the Indians have a chance to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1954, the cancellation of the postseason would be a major civic disappointment. Same in Montreal, where the surprising Expos were in excellent position to earn their first trip to the World Series if the season had not been interrupted.
Baseball has proven resilient after previous labor disputes, even after the 50-day players strike of 1981 that led to a hybrid split-season format and an extra playoff tier. But the sport has not gone without a World Series since New York Giants manager John McGraw refused to let his team participate the year after the first Series was played in 1903.
No one can measure what kind of damage a World Series cancellation would do to the image of Major League Baseball, but the owners and players appear ready to find out. The divide is so wide in the labor dispute that both sides seem willing to take any risk to prevail. The owners are stuck on cost certainty. The players are stuck on the status quo. The Series hangs in the balance.
"I know it's a source of grave concern and I'm very sensitive to the frustration and anxiety people are feeling," said acting commissioner Bud Selig, "but we are where we are because we have repressed these problems and ignored these problems for decades."
If the World Series is the ultimate victim of the strike, public confidence in the sport could fall to a level not seen since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. The strike already has stirred bad feelings among the fans and brought increased scrutiny from the government. The loss of the postseason tournament could be devastating.
"Of course it could," said management negotiator Richard Ravitch. "It would be the first time in 90 years that the World Series was not played. That's not good. There will be a tremendous loss of money to the players and owners and a tremendous loss for the fans. That's why we have to leave no stone unturned in an attempt to settle this -- but not at the expense of continuing this conflagration between the players and owners next year."
If you asked union director Donald Fehr, you'd get the same kind of reasoning. The Major League Baseball Players Association will lose the millions that would have gone into the pension fund and to individual postseason shares, yet the players consider the concessions being sought by management so onerous that the loss of the postseason may be a necessary evil.
The union may even try to use the prospect of losing the postseason to create another negotiating deadline for management. The Aug. 12 strike deadline did not have the desired effect, but the union might be able to juice up the negotiations by setting a September deadline after which it would refuse to play the Series even if a settlement were reached.
"It's conceivable, but we're not at that point now," Fehr said late last week. "It's getting late."
Perhaps such a drastic measure may not be necessary. Economic pressures already are building on ownership. The uncertainty surrounding the postseason already may be eroding the estimated $140 million that The Baseball Network expected to generate from televising the two tiers of playoffs and the World Series. According to an ownership source, the total take from the postseason tournament could drop significantly if the strike lasts beyond the first week of September.
John Harrington, chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox, even speculated last week on the possibility of playing the World Series in November at a neutral, warm-weather site if a settlement is reached too late to have the postseason on time. But he quickly conceded that such a contingency plan might not be fair to the fans.
If it doesn't get played on time, it probably won't get played, but Ravitch has said on several occasions that short-term losses pale next to the long-term consequences of continuing a history of labor/management friction.
Still, the question remains open. Will it be worth the heavy cost in fan disaffection? Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser supports the union position, but he worries that there will be tremendous pain to go along with any gains.
"If you set a precedent that you'll cancel the playoffs and World Series, you risk the fans not coming back someday," Hershiser said recently. "Every year that there are labor negotiations, they are going to think 'Why go to the games? There are labor negotiations so there probably won't be a postseason.'
"Why should fans support their teams if they are afraid it will be pulled out from under them? This is the worst thing that could happen in these negotiations."