When I had to sit out during the Major League Baseball strike of 1994-5, I knew there were some hot button issues to resolve. Free agent rights, pension plans, revenue sharing, arbitration rules. I also knew that solidarity was important and however long it took, I would wait until there were no other options. Well, waiting takes time, a currency that professional athletes tend to have little to waste. This is, in part, because your career is over faster than it starts, but it’s also because an unscheduled hiatus of inactivity is often disastrous for achieving any state of game readiness. I tried to stay in as much shape as possible. I moved in with my brother in sunny Florida to get outside, I drank power shakes, I worked out with other idle pro ballplayers. But it could never replicate the intensity and speed of training camp and trying to simulate the focus and drive required for the regular season was an exercise in futility. Once our strike ended, we had an abbreviated spring training and then we were thrust into the regular season. In my case, I was sent back to the minor leagues to compete with players who were already in mid-season form. Needless to say, I was behind. Way behind.
The NBA lockout has just ended, and their tentative plan has the season starting on Christmas Day after a shortened training camp. Despite the fact that a number of players have been playing abroad or in exhibitions all over the country, it will be a challenge for the league as a whole to be physically ready when that first buzzer sounds. The particularly frenetic pace of the game of basketball means that sharp cuts that are misstimed lead to blown out knees or ankles. Couple the explosiveness needed to perform with an increased rate of play (the NBA has also noted that there will be back-to-back-to-back games on the schedule to pick up the pace so the season will end reasonably early in the spring) and the injury rate could match what the NFL experienced with rushed training camps. It seemed like every time you looked up this NFL pre-season, someone blew out an Achilles heel. This physical vulnerability will require new strategies by coaches and more attention to the players who are best equipped to handle the intensity.
What about some of the rights that were on the table during the lockout? Free agency will now be a lightning round starting on Dec. 9, a mere 16 days before the season starts on Dec. 25. How free agent players will get a deal done, then learn new systems, new teammates and move entire families in this time frame may be comical. But that is what they will need to do to be ready to roll for the 2011-12 season.
For fans, the shortened schedule will prevent teams from visiting every city, so fans will miss a few match-ups that they have come to depend on. If you have a fantasy team, be prepared to start cramming. If you have a favorite team that is a veteran team, be prepared for some endurance injuries and some late season exhaustion. And if you are a season ticket holder, you may feel like you are watching baseball as your home team plays three games in three days. Just don’t start singing “Take me out to the ballgame” — it will get you some nasty stares.