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IN THE COACH'S BOX

Intimations of Apocalypse
By Stephen Lehman

Parity is not the American way. The American way is to dominate somebody else. —Davey Johnson, Los Angeles Dodgers manager, on the signing of Kevin Brown by the Dodgers

"The froggy, he am a queer bird."

This line from a long-forgotten children's nonsense song has occasionally surfaced from the recesses of my subconscious as I've struggled over the years to explain the words and actions of many of the folk who constitute the power elite of the National Pastime. What was one to think, after all, about Marge Schott's stupid pet tricks approach to employee relations and George Steinbrenner's obsessive love-hate affair with manager Billy Martin twenty years ago? How can one fathom Rupert Murdoch paying $105 million over seven years to a thirty-four-year-old pitcher? A thirty-four-year-old pitcher. Beyond "What in the name of Yogi can they be thinking?!" there isn't really much to say. I shake my head, shrug my shoulders, and turn the page of the sports section. You know the drill. Them baseball folks, they am some queer birds.

Every once in a while, however, a baseball executive, manager, coach, umpire, or player says or does something so vile, so chillingly stupid, so starkly revealing of either the addled state of his or her thinking or the withered condition of his or her soul, or both, that something more has to be said. Al Campanis, reported by many to be a "nice guy," could not be allowed to get away with his bigoted assertion that certain (non-white) races may lack the essential character traits required to manage or administrate a baseball team. Marge Schott's overtly racist hiring practices demanded censure. Tommy Lasorda's fiery—and utterly ignorant—contention that addiction is a moral failure and not a disease required rebuttal (though none came in the popular press, to my knowledge). Roberto Alomar's salivary dispute with umpire John Hirschbeck deserved condemnation. And Davey Johnson's warped and virulent pronouncement on what is and is not the "American Way" cannot go unanswered. It is, after all, the stuff of which the culture wars are made.

Granted, Johnson is an idiot in a long line of idiots inhabiting the ranks of Los Angeles Dodger management, and he is, after all, only knocking down straw batters. Parity isn't the issue and never has been. The Bill of Rights, the Civil War, women's suffrage, the various civil rights movements of this century—none were about parity. When Lincoln invoked at Gettysburg "the proposition that all men are created equal," he wasn't talking about parity. Lincoln knew full well what common sense tells us, that some people are born smarter, healthier, more resilient, better able to strike a three-inch leather sphere traveling ninety-five miles-per-hour with a three-foot wooden club than other people. No one disputes that. What Lincoln and Jefferson and Adams and Martin Luther King, Jr. were talking about is equal opportunity, equal protection under the law: that is, the level playing field.

Now there is a counter argument to be made here, of course. Johnson could point to the U. S. government's genocidal domination of North America's native peoples, to any number of imperialist military excursions in which the United States has engaged during the past two hundred years, and to the monopolistic economic steamroller of American mega-corporations, particularly during the past quarter-century, to bolster his view of the American Way. But none of those behaviors are inherently American; none are the logical extension of this country's great experiment in popular democracy. They're more like the natural tendencies of monarchies or fascist states than democratic ones (and, for what it's worth, more like football than baseball). And besides, Rupert Murdoch, Johnson's boss, is Australian. So who's dominating whom?

For the sake of our own amusement, though, let's carry Johnson's "American Way" philosophy to its logical conclusion in baseball. Since domination and not fair play is the desired end, and since such an end must not only justify the means but determine them, let's explore the options of the small market teams in this Brave New League. Obviously, the Twins and Royals and Expos and Brewers canıt put the players on the field to compete with the Yankees and Braves and Orioles and Dodgers. How could they? The Dodgers are projecting an $85 million payroll in 1999; the Twins are projecting $10 million (if they succeed in dumping Rick Aguilera and Marty Cordova's salaries, as they're currently trying to do). That's a factor of 8.5, my friends. Imagine what you could do in your Rotisserie league if you had eight and a half times as much to spend in the draft as your neighbor. But there are other options left the small market owner, options that must be perfectly acceptable in Davey Johnson's America.

Let's take the Brewers. Their former owner, Bud Selig (to avoid conflict of interest, the teamıs now in the hands of his daughter—nod, nod, wink, wink), also happens to be the Commissioner of Baseball. As such, if he were to behave like a true Johnsonian American, he could simply change the rules to the benefit of his daughter's team. It isn't about a level playing field, after all, it's about dominating someone else. Selig could declare that Yankee home runs count only for 1/4 of a run. He could announce that Orioles batters are allotted only one strike before being called out and must accumulate ten balls before being awarded a base. Or he could start tampering with the schedule, fixing it so that the Texas Rangers play only twenty games in their home park per year, and the rest on the road.

But what about the Royals or Twins? Without the power of the commissioner's office behind them (and they'll get no help from Selig, since he'll presumably only be out to help his daughter dominate others), they'll need to be more devious. Perhaps they'll be forced to install trapdoors in the outfields of their home stadiums and open them when opposing players are on defense. Maybe forty-foot high outfield fences could be elevated into place when the opposition comes to bat. How about poisonous spiders and snakes in the visitors' clubhouse? Absurd? Outrageous? Come on, you whiners—it's the American Way. Whatever it takes. Just dominate, baby. (Oops, sorry—thatıs football again.)

It's a big paradox. A number of players made more money last season than our entire payroll. I hope it will end. The question is who is in charge to end it? —Felipe Alou, Montreal Expos manager, on the signing of Kevin Brown by the Dodgers
There is no appropriate comment I can make. —Bud Selig, reputed Commissioner of Major League Baseball, on the signing of Kevin Brown by the Dodgers

What can we say about Bud Lite that hasn't already been said? Should we compare him to Nero, fiddling while Rome burns? No, it's been done. Should we brand him a chump of the super-wealthy teams, Reinsdorf's lapdog, Steinbrenner's shill? That's old news, too, and anyway it's much simpler than that: the fact is, Bud has been out to sea for so long and is in it so deep, so far over his head, that he's growing gills. If you'll pardon a mid-paragraph metaphor switch, he's been spending so much energy denying the infestation of termites, that now that the walls are down and the roof is resting directly on his head, "there is no appropriate comment [he] can make." What do we expect him to say? "Boy, was I ever wrong." "Well, I guess I'm just a complete moron." Not likely.

In case the exciting spectacle of the NBA self-destructing has kept you mesmerized this off-season and you haven't been following the news of baseball signings, the lid has come off. At least nine players will almost certainly make more money next year than the entire Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos twenty-five-man rosters. Need more proof that the genie's out of the bottle? Take last year, the year before the Kevin Brown, Mo Vaughn, Bernie Williams, Albert Belle, Mike Piazza, et al, signings, the year when baseball supposedly came roaring back in the national consciousness, the year baseball was "saved" by the McGwire-Sosa heroics, the year Selig triumphantly declared a "baseball renaissance." It was also the year of the "twelve and twelve." In 1998, twelve teams had a payroll greater than $47 million. All eight playoff teams came from this top group of twelve. Not only that, only one of the top twelve spenders had a losing record, the Baltimore Orioles. Now let's look at the bottom twelve teams, the teams that had a payroll of less than $37 million. Not only did none make the playoffs, only one even had a winning record, the Toronto Blue Jays.

What does this mean? It means that the most important baseball tradition of all, the tradition of "wait until next year," has already been demolished. That tradition is now dead as a doornail in the following cities: Detroit, Kansas City, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, Milwaukee, Tampa, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Oakland. As Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it, these teams have zero chance of getting to the World Series next year. Zero. Furthermore, the "wait until next year" tradition is in critical condition in Houston, St. Louis, San Diego, Cleveland (yes, Cleveland, where they sell out a publicly financed stadium before the season even starts and still have to offer worthless stock in the team to get enough money to keep their players), the south side of Chicago, and Boston. It's only a matter of time. Miklasz quotes Selig as at least recognizing what's at stake here: "On April 1 the baseball fan has two things—hope and faith. It's my job to make sure hope and faith prevail in as many franchises as possible…we can't ignore the disparities."

But Bud Lite has ignored the disparities. He's been in denial. He's hidden behind the false hope that public monies in the form of stadium subsidies could somehow solve the profound economic dysfunction that is Major League Baseball. The emptiness of that solution has now been exposed for all to see. What do you say now to the taxpayers of Milwaukee, San Diego, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Detroit, all teams destined to get free stadiums in the next few years at the expense of schools, housing, infrastructure repair, and all manner of social services, and each destined to field a second-tier ball club in their fancy new shopping mall digs. Without good baseball, without even the hope of good baseball, the novelty of the new stadium will wear off before the concrete sets, and the working and middle classes will foot the bill for decades to come. If it's the commissioner's job to keep hope and faith alive for the baseball fan, he has failed miserably. On April 1, 1999, in at least half the major league cities in America and Canada, there will be no hope and there will be no faith. There will only be the certainty of being dominated by the wealthy and powerful. And that is not a model for healthy competition. It is not the American (or Canadian) Way. It is the beginning of the end of organized baseball. It is apocalypse come to our erstwhile National Pastime.

—EFQ

STEPHEN LEHMAN is editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly.

This column first appeared in EFQ 16:1, Winter 1999

© 1999 Stephen Lehman

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