You may have noticed how several MLB players started changing their Twitter avatars to blank silhouettes Thursday afternoon. The show of solidarity was a response to the league removing all references to current players once the lockout began, replacing their likenesses with digital mannequins, but it all started as a joke from former Cubs pitcher Trevor Williams.
“It was just being silly,” Williams told ESPN. “It’s a meme. When you think about it, by us posting a picture of what MLB does, we’re doubling down on what they’re doing. It’s not supposed to be serious.”
I have no idea what likeness means
— Trevor Williams (@MeLlamoTrevor) December 2, 2021
What began as Williams goofing around quickly turned into a movement that took all the piss out of MLB’s lame-ass scrubbing and represented a win for players on the PR front. That’s big as baseball endures its first lockout since 1990 and ninth overall work stoppage in its history, especially after seeing how the league and owners maintained full control of the narrative during the summer of 2020.
— The Compound (@thecompoundpod) December 2, 2021
Though not technically a work stoppage in a traditional sense, the league and union had to negotiate a return plan in the midst of a pandemic that centered around money. All the while, the league proceeded to leak information through media sources to make it known that the owners desperately wanted to give the game back to the fans and were being held ransom by those mean players who were too spoiled to play a game for money.
That the negotiations weren’t happening in good faith didn’t matter because, as is so often the case, the first story is the one people tend to believe. Owners talked about biblical losses and acted as though they were doing everything in their power to bring the game back out of altruistic devotion to the fans. Seriously, that’s what they wanted you to believe. And you know what, I think they actually convinced themselves that was true.
At the very least, they convinced themselves they could get fans to believe it. Some even did buy the line, which supported the hubris behind the whole thing. Most people can’t truly discern the vast gulf that exists between the second and 13th letters of the alphabet, so they lump millionaires and billionaires into the same group. Never mind that most ballplayers aren’t pulling down the ninth figure that necessitates such differentiation in the first place.
Then there are those fans whose vantage point from the stands allows them to see the field clearly but does not afford such a good view into the ivory tower. Owners, then, simply aren’t as tangible as the players. Add in a strange fascination with wealth that leads people to equate money and success to value and you get a convoluted situation in which the players are really the bad guys biting the hand that feeds them.
“I’d play for less than league minimum,” say the schmoes who skulk around the beer league softball park trying to find a co-ed game that needs a ringer. Brother, no one is paying to watch you flail that rolled DeMarini against Jacob deGrom.
Anyway, the point is that the tide is turning now that players have direct access to fans through platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and all manner of podcasts. They’re able to share their thoughts in real-time and they’re doing it a much more concerted effort than ever before. While Rob Manfred clumsily reads talking points from a sheet of paper, Williams is starting a viral meme.
As trite as that sounds, it’s an example of the players reaching people where they are. Owners and top-level league execs really don’t truly understand the way in which social media serves as the connective tissue of modern fandom. It’s how we consume and process news about teams and, with even greater strength following a period when no one could attend ballparks in person, it’s become how we experience games together.
So while owners try to funnel their propaganda through national talking heads sympathetic to their plight, the players are just skipping the middle man and bringing their story to the masses wholesale. It’s honest and it’s fun and the fans get to follow their favorite athletes even when they’re not on the field. Maybe it won’t completely turn the tide, not yet, but the league is fast losing its grip on the wheel when it comes to steering fans’ thoughts.
Well, some fans. There’s still plenty of fertile ground out there in which the owners can plant seeds of discontent, but the acreage is dwindling.