Lifestyles Left and Right

Strike Out

Who took the CHARGE! out of baseball?

7.15.02

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It was a near-perfect evening -- balmy and clear -- and for such an evening the perfect thing to do is to go to a ball game. We drove to Baltimore to see our two favorite teams, the Orioles and the Oakland A's have it out. They gave us a great evening's worth: a 1-0 pitchers' duel, won by the A's.

Camden Yards, the home of the Orioles, has everything a baseball fan could want. There are food and beverage stands and big restrooms every few yards. There are souvenir shops, a sports art gallery, a man who makes baseball bats and a stadium staff that must have gone to charm school. They are universally courteous, friendly and helpful.

Inside, there is not a bad seat in the place. The scoreboard is so complete one doesn't need a printed program. Behind center field is a tree-covered park which groups can reserve for picnics. The whole place is spotless and bright.

But there is a manufactured quality to the enthusiasm. The A's got the only run of the evening in the first inning, and it was two innings later before the O's arose from their torpor. Meanwhile, the public address system played often -- at a high decibel level -- a cavalry bugle call, to which the fans were to supposed to respond with a lusty cheer of CHARGE! The cheers were lackluster for some time, so large signs flashed: LOUDER! MORE NOISE! Gradually, the crowd become more animated, helped along by a person in a black and orange bird costume (real birds, if they could talk, would no doubt claim offense at the ridicule of their species).

Despite the electronically-induced enthusiasm the crowd had a good time. Many families were there, and who could argue that watching a baseball game isn't a more wholesome way for kids to spend an evening than watching mindless television programs, playing bloodthirsty computer games or, for that matter, stealing hubcaps?

This was the first time since 1952 that I had attended more than one baseball game in a single season. My thoughts kept drifting back to that long ago year when the Oakland Oaks won the Pacific Coast League pennant, after the salty and indomitable Casey Stengel had built them up before he moved on to the Yankees. All that was before the major leagues ventured west of the Mississippi River (and when the World Series would have been more accurately described as the Eastern Third of the United States Series).

The Oaks, like most teams in that AAA league, were a mix of aging major leaguers in the sunset of their careers and brash youngsters (such as Billy Martin) on the way up. The stadium was a rickety fire trap. At full capacity (when playing the cross-Bay rivals, the San Francisco Seals) it held maybe 13,000 fans. The scoreboard was activated by kids on platforms behind it who dropped tin numbers into slots to indicate runs. But like the other night in Baltimore, it was always a great way to spend an evening.

Those evenings may soon be in short supply. The major league players, who we are told average incomes of $2.4 million a year, are threatening a strike. The owners are pleading poverty. One day last week, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told reporters that two franchises were in dire financial straits. Twenty-four hours later the crisis had, miraculously, passed. In 1994, on the eve of the last players' strike, Selig told Congress, "There are many franchises today, and again I could begin to articulate them one by one, who have deep trouble...We have a remarkable amount of teams losing money."

To set things right a few weeks after Selig's testimony, MLB (Major League Baseball) got $130 million in new franchise fees from groups in Phoenix and Tampa. Then, as baseball kept marching toward the poor house, the price of existing franchises went up: $250 million for the Texas Rangers; $311 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers; $323 million for the Cleveland Indians; and, finally, early this year, $700 million for the Boston Red Sox, a team whose value was estimated at $90 million in 1994, when Commissioner Selig was pleading poverty.

The players enjoy their astronomical salaries; the owners like their big profits; however, the profitable teams don't like the profit-sharing arrangement in which they have to dole out some of their profits to weak teams.

Last week the All-Star game ended in a tie in the 11th inning because Selig could not bring himself to bend the rules to allow previously-used pitchers to come back so the game could be finished. Fans were furious, which is not surprising. They wanted a final score. Now, if the players and owners muddle their way into another strike, it may be the last one. Fans have signed no loyalty pledge. They can move to auto racing, tennis, golf, even soccer. Selig & Company seem to be taking them for granted. They shouldn't. There are other ways to enjoy a near-perfect summer evening.

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