Now that the baseball season is in full bloom it has, unlike the brilliant springtime flora and fauna, spawned much unsightliness in the form of sports-radio talk. The constant yammering is almost enough to make one thankful for the intrusion of the interminable NFL draft.
Instead of reveling in the beauty of baseball’s constancy while appreciating its enduring ability to surprise — like Omar Vizquel’s amazing pivot in an elusive four-six-five double play earlier in the season — many fans are wasting time debating the complex issues surrounding Barry Bonds.
When discussing the enigmatic Mr. Bonds it is clear that he is a most singular personality, yet some of the problems which engulf him are symptomatic of modern baseball itself. But the greed, egotism, cheating, phony charges of racism and even disdain for the fans are not exclusive to either the players or the owners.
Greed is defined as “an excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain.” Depending on who’s acting on that desire, greed is either one of the seven deadly sins or the engine of the American Dream. The tired charge that baseball is only recently “all about money” speaks of an ignorance of its history. I suggest reading two books: Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof and Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record.
The truth is, in the earlier days of the game the greed was all one-sided. Though individual players have staged holdouts for higher pay almost since the game’s inception, the owners ruled with an iron hand until 1965 when the Major League Baseball Players Association was created.
Former steel unionist Marvin Miller’s MLBPA leveled the playing field, bringing collective bargaining to the game. He used arbitration to break baseball’s reserve clause, thus enabling free agency; an event that changed the face of American sports forever.
But by the time of the advent of free agency, a much greater innovation had already changed the face of America itself forever: the television set. And while it is easy to blame either the owners or the players union for escalating salaries, one need look no further than the influence of the idiot box.
Imagine that you were a bank teller in the late 1940s and one day someone decided that your fellow citizens around the country would enjoy watching you ply your trade and pay great sums of money for that privilege. How should that windfall — which costs neither you nor your employer a dime — be distributed between you?
And for those who still decry the eight-figure salaries of some players, one wonders why similar outrage is not directed at other entertainers like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise or Paul McCartney who earn even more? Again, those who themselves pursue the American Dream and celebrate its attainment by some, seem to resent it when it is achieved by those in the sports world.
Perhaps one reason is the degree of egotism displayed by those like Mr. Bonds and others of his ilk as they play a game most of us enjoyed in our youth as one that is team-oriented. But this type of selfish play is also an offshoot of TV money and free-agency, as huge contracts with personal incentives undermine the notion of teamwork so essential to baseball.
This shift in the way the game is played is only one example of the disdain shown by both owners and the union toward baseball’s fans. This disdain is manifested in many ways; from the schedule-busting nonsense that is interleague play, to the meaningless and contrived World Baseball Classic, the powers that be have dulled the beautiful symmetry of the game “in the interests of baseball.”
Equally fan-friendly has been the elimination of the regularly scheduled doubleheaders so loved and remembered by baseball aficionados across the land, which were sacrificed at the altar of union demands. Gone too are those sun-washed, languid afternoons spent watching your favorite team play two after a rainout, replaced instead by the insidious advent of the day-night twinbill designed by the owners to grab the most cash.
Worse yet, Major League Baseball switched its schedule maker in 2004 with the awful result that both the Yankees and the Mets were off on Memorial Day last year; nor did the Yankees play on Labor Day. Unforgivably, in the New York metropolitan area, home of the “boys of summer,” the holidays that bookend that glorious span saw those ballparks dark.
In his farewell to the game, only weeks before his death, Babe Ruth famously said, “The only real game — I think — in the world is baseball.” To paraphrase Ben Franklin who spoke similarly of our republic: Yes, if you can keep it.