Recalling The Time Justice Sotomayor Saved Baseball - & Wishing She Could Do It Again

Jul 10, 2020

I can't even begin to tell you how many Independence Days I have spent at ball parks over the years – Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium, Great American Ball Park.

Some were just dusty sandlots where I was playing as a kid or, as a grownup, coaching other kids in Knothole baseball, teaching them to play the greatest game ever invented and how to behave like good sports doing it.

But last Saturday was the saddest of them all.

Around noontime, I parked my car in the underground garage below The Banks and walked over to Crosley Terrace, the green expanse of grass and concrete, dotted with the statues of Reds heroes of the past, just  outside the locked gates of Great American Ballpark.

I knew perfectly well that, inside, on the green field, Reds players – dressed mostly in T-shirts, shorts and baseball cleats – were out there getting ready for an unimaginable 60-game season that will begin July 24 because of a bitter labor dispute that ate up three months of the season.

Not being a credentialed baseball scribe, I was not allowed to go inside Saturday and watch the warm-ups, similar to what the players do in the regular spring training morning session in Goodyear, Arizona.

Instead, I went to one of my favorite places, the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, right next door to the ball park on Joe Nuxhall Way.

I always get a pleasant greeting from the staff at the Hall; and they had waiting for me the four bobbleheads my Hall of Fame membership have earned me so far this season – Glenn Braggs, a hero of the 1990 National League Championship series; Paul Derringer, the ace starting pitcher of the Reds team that went to the 1939 and 1940 seasons; Hal Morris, a rookie first baseman for the 1990 "Wire to Wire" World Championship Reds; and Marty Brennaman, the radio voice of the Reds from 1974 through 2019.

I took another look at the incredible art exhibit based on the baseball of the Negro Leagues, which were created 100 years ago. And a new exhibit – one that made my jaw drop – a display of bats from every single member of the Big Red Machine of the 1970s.

That was very satisfying, but when I walked back out into the scorching mid-day heat, I once again saw the ball park, where, for once, I was not welcome. Even when the games start on July 24, there will be no fans in the stands, because of concerns over the COVID-19 virus.

Major League Baseball with no fans in the stands. Inconceivable.

A spider webs takes a seat as the Cincinnati Reds participate in team baseball practice at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Sunday, July 5, 2020.
Credit Aaron Doster / AP

In all, this was the eighth work stoppage in the history of Major League Baseball.

It hurts as a fan, but it doesn't hurt quite as much as the strike of 1994, when the entire post-season, including the World Series, were cancelled, when players walked off the job rather than let the owners implement a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

I stood there looking at the seemingly abandoned ball park and wondered:

Where is Sonia Sotomayor when we need her?

What does this have to do with an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Read on.

The strike which cancelled the post-season dragged on through the fall of 1994 and the winter of 1995.

By the time spring training camps would usually be opening, there was no end to the strike, and baseball owners began hiring "replacement players" - college kids, players from the lower rungs of the minor leagues, former pro players who were rather long in the tooth – to replace the striking ballplayers.

We call them "scabs" back where I come from.

Of course, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed suit and the case ended up before U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a native of the Bronx who was an enthusiastic New York Yankees fan.

Sotomayor ruled in favor of the players union; and appeals courts agreed. That ended what was a 232-day strike.

In 2009, when President Obama appointed Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said that "some say Judge Sotomayor saved baseball."

Baseball came back in 1995, although there were a lot of bad feelings among the fans. It took them a while to come back to the ball parks. The Reds went to the playoffs that year and played before a lot of empty seats at Riverfront Stadium in the National League Championship Series with the Atlanta Braves.

There are a lot of bad feeling among fans now. Hard to say how that will impact attendance in 2021.

And, at the end of the 2021 season, the current CBA expires and there is likely to be bad blood between the players' union and the owners when a new agreement is negotiated. Could baseball be headed for yet another strike or lockout?

This time, there will be no Sotomayor on the district court bench to pull baseball's fat out of the fire.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.