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NOTES FROM THE DUGOUT

The New Politics of Baseball
By Tom Goldstein

If you've been a loyal reader of this journal, or have had the opportunity to peruse several back issues, you're undoubtedly aware that from an editorial viewpoint, EFQ often appears one-sided in documenting the ills of major league baseball. We've regularly blasted the greedy robber barons who now control the game, whether it's over the loss of Tiger Stadium and Comiskey Park, the forced work stoppage that cancelled the 1994 World Series, the marketing of baseball as some kind of "show-biz" entertainment, or the recent spate of blackmailing communities for stadiums. We figure that somebody has to speak out, even if it makes us the proverbial "lone voice shouting in the night" as the big leagues deteriorate.

We are not so incredibly cynical, however, that we can't appreciate the heartwarming story that has emerged in 1998 as Mark McGwire has relentlessly pursued Roger Maris' all-time single season homerun record. By the time this issue goes to press, both McGwire and Sammy Sosa will have shattered the old benchmark of 61, and one of them could ultimately finish with 70 dingers. Of more importance, though, has been McGwire's classy performance on and off the field throughout the epic chase. His singular acts of signing autographs freely before the game, hugging his son after belting one out, shunning all endorsement deals, and pledging to give a million bucks annually to charities fighting child abuse have given baseball a small slice of dignity that has been so clearly lacking the past several years. Ditto for Sosa, whose own gaudy homerun numbers have garnered him little of the media attention surrounding McGwire, yet who has maintained a genuine "just happy to be here" demeanor and modestly deflected any publicity with his simple "Mark's the man" tribute.

It's a shame that the fans couldn't be left alone to savor these golden moment in all of their glory. Bud Selig—like the neighbor who blasts his stereo on a quiet, moon-lit night—wouldn't allow us that pleasure. As it turns out, major league baseball is incredibly cynical.

Just as hypocritical politicians know that a heartwarming story will distract the people from the real truth of long-term problems, baseball and Selig have eagerly embraced McGwire as the savior of the game in yet another pathetic attempt to convince the public that baseball's glory has returned. The Cardinal slugger has become baseball's equivalent of the American flag, and Selig, now permanent as the owners' mouthpiece, has greedily wrapped himself in the moment, co-opting McGwire's achievement for immediate use in baseball's long-running con game. McGwire's amazing humility, the daily stalking (since opening day) of a previously invincible record that everyone expected him to break, the classy hug of the Maris family after the record-breaking clout—these heroics that are memorable solely because of Big Mac's grace—are no longer simply wonderful moments to be treasured. Instead, they have been transformed—instantaneously—into baseball's newest marketing tool.

We know why the ever-friendly media (even more so, with the Dodgers now part of the Fox Television "family") is so eager to anoint McGwire as the new Babe Ruth (i.e., the old ratings game), but why is baseball so desperately trying to convince us that McGwire has "saved" the game? The simple answer: Even with McGwire's heroics this past season, baseball is not, as the "commissioner" has been so fond of saying during this so-called "renaissance" year, in the "middle stages" of a "remarkable recovery" (from the devastating 1994-95 "strike"); Rather, it is in the middle stages of a decline. Just take a look at the overall attendance numbers, those magical statistics that baseball has always used as a barometer for its success.

According to a recent story in Sports Illustrated (8/31/98, pg. 32), if one eliminates the million plus fans that McGwire excitement will add to this year's Cardinal attendance figures, and excludes new fans brought in by the two expansion clubs, overall attendance to major league games has actually declined in 1998! Even with the McGwire-frenzied crowds included, overall attendance (minus the expansion teams) as of early August had risen barely 1% (see Olbermann, Keith, Sports Illustrated, 8/10/98, pg. 90). Keep in mind that these dismal attendance numbers have also been achieved with the benefit of a strong economy and burgeoning stock market, near-capacity crowds at new stadiums in Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas, and Colorado, and several hundred thousand beanie babies given away to packed houses. Not exactly renaissance numbers if you ask me. Yet there was Selig at the Reds-Cardinals game on September 6th (two days before McGwire passed Maris), gushing to a national TV audience that baseball was now—incredibly—in the final stages of its recovery! Like Richard Nixon during Watergate, Bud doesn't want to be bothered with pesky little details about the truth.

It's not exactly a surprise that baseball is now completely dominated by political rhetoric. Take a look at what's happened to the rest of the country the past twenty years. Our environment has been pillaged by companies that strip out the natural resources, destroy the landscape, pollute the soils and streams with impunity, and call it "progress." Our jobs, our pensions, our sense of calm and community have been sacrificed for the sake of corporate mergers, and the greedy shareholders and executives who realize enormous profits by those actions applaud the new found "health" of the companies. In a nation where our mineral rights are sold for a song, but the cost of our health care rises exponentially, what did we really expect? That the folks who have been raping and scavenging the country throughout the 80s and 90s would leave our precious game alone? Fat chance.

Baseball is America's newly found "cheap" natural resource. Our communities have become strip mines, and the fans are the precious commodity to be plundered. First the owners shake us down for a new stadium, then they raise the ticket and concession prices. After that, they bombard us with every marketing scheme possible, hoping we'll spend more of our hard-earned money "for the team." And if we don't keep paying, they threaten to move "our" club to a greener pasture, or to decimate the roster a la Wayne Huizenga.

The long-term quality of the game no longer matters; it's merely the short-term perception of how baseball is doing that's important. That's why our game is now being run by network executives, marketing consultants, and PR "wizards", the kind of people who specialize in gimmicks and thrive on deceit and spin (can you say "state of the art" ballpark?). Long-term stability, which requires commitment, risk, innovation, and honesty, is a foreign concept where short-term "excitement" aimed at fooling the public is the goal.

The mere fact that baseball could be a refuge from this real world nonsense of rampant greed and marketing ad nauseam is what had underscored the game's appeal, its place in America's cultural past. Now the fans have become mere pawns in a largely amoral business conglomerate, and quite frankly, we're disgusted by it. As Roger Angell has said,

Baseball has changed more in the last few years than in all of its previous history, but I think the biggest change is...the disillusionment of the fans themselves—a blunting and cooling of the game's ancient loyalties. Nothing escapes the fans..., and in recent years they have watched the owners of the game engage in a careless, greedy and wholly cynical scramble for new revenues and franchises that has strained and perhaps severed a good many of the tough, subtly wound cables that have always tied baseball to the American heart....We know that only a cold eye—the kind that sees baseball simply as a kind of show business—can destroy the summer spell of our old game.

Thus, in this year of amazing achievements (let's not forget David Wells' perfect game, Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout, near perfecto, and the stellar performances of Juan Gonzalez and Ken Griffey Jr.), not even a modern Babe Ruth can lure back enough core fans who truly care about the game. (Witness the "fans" in St. Louis, during games in August, departing Busch Stadium after a McGwire at bat in the seventh inning, not caring that the game could still be won, but only that Big Mac probably wouldn't get another chance to add to his homerun total.) The bottom line is that baseball can be appreciated wherever it is played, and if politics alienates us from the major league version, there are still plenty of other enjoyable venues from which to view this timeless game. Lately that alternative has been the minor leagues, where the game has been thriving. I found out why during a July visit to Nashville, home of the Pirates AAA affiliate, the Sounds.

At the modern enough Greer Stadium, with every seat a lower deck box close to the action (the glassed-in luxury boxes are conveniently located at the top of the stadium out of everyone's way), the game is still pure. The fans' enthusiasm is genuine and spontaneous, the action is on the field (didn't see a cellular phone anywhere), and the homeruns actually leave the park! A fading Pete Incaviglia and Casey Candaele of the opponent New Orleans Zephyrs gave the game a link to the Show, and a surprisingly "beefed up" Pete Rose Jr. looked terribly out-of-shape while striking out as a pinch-hitter for the Sounds. There was even a birdseye view of a good, old-fashioned rhubarb, something one seldom has the chance to witness up-close in the distant seats characteristic of even the new "retro" parks in the major leagues. During several between-innings giveaways, Sounds souvenir balls and mini-frisbees were tossed into the stands (my friend Jeff Pennig, a tremendously knowledgeable fan, terrific guy, and successful songwriter in Nashville, managed to snag three of the freebies out of my grasp), and after the game there was a hugely entertaining performance by a high school marching band and a stunning fireworks display. All for the bargain price (parking was free) of the $8 game ticket!

With such pleasures available at a minor league game, why do we at EFQ care that major league baseball, like much of American life, has become so politicized? Why not stop worrying about the fate of the majors, and simply encourage people to go to the minor league parks, the college stadiums, or the little league fields? It's still baseball, isn't it? I guess the answer has to do with why anyone gets involved in a political struggle, why anyone cares about something worthwhile and beautiful that is being destroyed in one's community. It also has to do with the insidious greed that the "new" capitalism, unleashed in the 1980s, inspires.

As the major league gravy train inevitably dries up for the owners, where do you think these "renaissance" men will turn for their next payday? They've already disrupted the annual rite of spring training with several teams moving to new training complexes (presumably with higher ticket prices for the fans) invariably paid for by the cities providing the facilities (see Bamberger, Michael, "Unfamiliar Roads" in Sports Illustrated, 3/2/98, pg. 19), so the next rich "vein" to be plundered is undoubtedly the minor leagues. The minors represent especially fertile ground, with dozens of medium-sized cities that can't afford major league franchises, but already have successful baseball operations that soon will be "undervalued." The stadium hustle, with the requisite "revitalizing the community" jingle, has already begun in small market cities like Trenton, New Jersey, and Sioux City, Iowa (see Wertheim, L. Jon, "Field of Schemes," Sports Illustrated, 6/15/98), where "taxpayer-financed stadiums ($18 million in Trenton, $3.5 million in Sioux City) are the norm." In fact, in Sioux City where the independent Northern League Explorers play, annual payments on the stadium debt are more than three times the revenue that the team generates in lease payments. Sound familiar?

The destructive forces present in the major leagues have already begun to infect the minor league game, such that the very pleasure we once enjoyed at the major league parks will someday be threatened at the minor league level as well. (Just wait until the larger-market minor league teams are snapped up by wealthy interests in the next decade.) It might take twenty years, or maybe even fifty years to occur, but eventually it will happen. (I would love to be wrong about this.) And if you think the evidence offered suggesting a trend is greatly exaggerated, that our sounding yet another warning about the "state of the game" is merely the strident voice of a misguided neurotic, consider this: Those words from Roger Angell, quoted above? They're from his foreword to a paperback edition of the baseball classic, The Natural. The year they were penned? 1966.

—EFQ

This column first appeared in EFQ 15:4, Fall 1998

© 1998 Tom Goldstein

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