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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Smooth Sailing Ahead
By Tom Goldstein

Two years ago editor Steve Lehman wrote in these pages ("Intimations of Apocalypse," vol. 16, no. 1) about the insanity of Rupert Murdoch agreeing to pay a thirty-four-year-old Kevin Brown $15 million a year to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Steve noted that Brown's average yearly salary would likely exceed the annual payroll for the entire twenty-five man roster of small-market teams like the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos (not to mention the Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals), and that with only the highest payroll teams now qualifying for the postseason each year, fans in over half of the cities that currently serve as host to Major League Baseball have little reason to get excited about the annual pennant races. After all, as Steve saw it, if come opening day your team has virtually no chance of getting to the World Series—let alone posting a winning record—what's the point of caring about the season?

But now there's a new day in baseball, right? The 2000 playoffs featured five newcomers, and as Doug Pappas points out later in this issue, the American League Central Division Champion White Sox had the third lowest payroll in the AL, while Oakland and San Francisco had the lowest payrolls in their respective divisions. Plus Major League Baseball has unveiled its sterling Blue Ribbon Report, sure to bring about monumental changes in the structure of the game and put baseball on solid financial ground for the first time in decades.

Given that such spin could be swallowed by only the most naive of baseball fans, I can only suggest that if you believe Major League Baseball to be healthy, that the game (as Bud Selig is so fond of saying) has been "enjoying a renaissance" since 1998, then immediately take your life savings and plow them into every Internet stock you can find. Because realistically speaking, our national pastime has become nothing more than a house of cards, and when it finally collapses, the shakeout won't be pretty.

Whatever false hope the appearance of five new teams in last year's postseason might have given to fans in cities like Kansas City, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Toronto, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal, San Diego, Miami, Tampa, and Cincinnati has presumably dissipated in the wake of the latest phenomenal contracts handed out by the shrewd stewards of our national pastime. Unless of course one believes that billionaire Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks has the ego of a small rabbit, or that Red Sox GM Dan Duquette would never do anything financially reckless to boost fan enthusiasm for the ill-conceived "new Fenway" project that his employer wants citizens of Boston to build—at a cost that might now exceed $850 million.

Then again, if a pitcher is really worth almost $1 million a victory (as Kevin Brown has cost the Dodgers for his thirty-one wins the past two seasons—even though he needed relief help in over 85 percent of his starts), perhaps Alex Rodriguez deserves $25 million a year from the Rangers and Manny Ramirez $20 million a year from the Red Sox. Just don't suggest this to the taxpayers of Seattle, who got stuck with the $517 million tab for the new and exorbitantly-priced Safeco Field, only to watch the two mainstays of the Mariners' future—superstars Ken Griffey Jr. and Rodriguez—both depart barely a year after the team began play in its new digs. Or to the taxpayers of Cleveland, whose public schools are called the worst in the nation, and whose poorest taxpayers foot the bill for a "sin tax"-financed stadium that not only can they seldom afford to enter, but one that no longer provides enough revenue for the Indians to hold together the nucleus of one of baseball's best teams in the 1990s.

As disingenuous as Major League Baseball has been the past decade, as deceptive as Bud Selig has been during his tenure as baseball's mouthpiece, the latest wave of mind-boggling contracts is perhaps baseball's most cynical act yet: the Rodriguez and Ramirez signings occurred just five months after MLB released its so-called "blue ribbon report" detailing the immense financial disparities inherent in the game. In fact, MLB has made no attempt to implement any of the findings from its own report. Instead, Selig and his legion of billionaires continue to work tirelessly at shoving taxpayer-financed ballparks down the throats of recalcitrant citizens in Boston, Minneapolis, Miami, Oakland, St. Louis, Philadelphia (and possibly even Montreal). Did anyone really expect the Commish to suddenly pull an about-face and have the integrity to freeze salaries—or take some other drastic measure that would indicate even a small cognizance of the gravity of baseball's economic ills? Not on your life.

Having listened to Bud Selig blather, I can only imagine what it must have felt like for farmers caught in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to hear Herbert Hoover speak during the worst of the Depression. Selig's not trying to fix anything; he's merely conniving with the owners to see how long baseball can further its current stadium blackmail scam before it has to find some other source of revenue. What's next? Outright government subsidies? Would a billion dollars a year be enough? (With one of the owners' brethren now sitting in the White House, we might well have a chance to find out.)

Actually, the "solution" to baseball's ills isn't too far off, though the "medicine" might just kill the patient. Lest anyone forgot, the current bargaining agreement between the players and owners expires after the 2001 season, and unless an unexpected miracle is in the works, the 2002 season won't come off as planned. As much as one would like to believe that neither the players nor owners would do something so incredibly stupid as to ignore the lessons of the 1994–95 work-stoppage, when exactly has common sense ever prevailed in baseball labor matters? With Rupert Murdoch, Tom Hicks, and George Steinbrenner on one side of the table, is there any real chance that significant revenue sharing will come about? With Donald Fehr sitting at the opposite side of the table, what's the likelihood that the players will suddenly accept a salary cap? With either side sitting at the table, does anyone really expect baseball to care about the fans, to take responsibility for blackmailing our cities and crushing our loyalties?

Me? I'm not trying to figure any of this out. Having sat in on enough discussions concerning the "state" of Major League Baseball (and the Twins' current plight), and having witnessed far too many reporters who have no stake in regularly exposing baseball's ills, I know that ultimately, rational thought will not prevail. I liken the current situation in baseball to the mood that must have dominated this country's powers-that-be in the late 1920s (or even now): blissful ignorance. When the "crash" hits is anybody's guess, but there's enough "irrational exuberance" to predict that the fateful day will come much sooner than later. Sadly, even then—as always—it will be the fans who suffer most. Let's just hope that readers of this journal appreciate the delights of the minor league game, because that's where our national pastime now resides.

—EFQ

 

Editor's note: As many of you who read Steve Lehman's "farewell" essay (EFQ vol. 17, no. 3) are aware, Steve has stepped down as editor of EFQ after fifteen years at the helm. This was not a move I welcomed, but it had become clear that as much as Steve wanted to remain an active part of the journal, there was just no conceivable way he could balance the demands he placed on himself to produce quality issues (in his spare time) with the more important responsibilities of family, work, and well, breathing!

Steve's a much better writer than I expect I'll ever be, and his knowledge of literature far exceeds mine. I'd have difficulty naming the particular speaker (and play) for just about every meaningful Shakespeare quote that's been cited over the years, and if you're hoping that on occasion I might provide some pithy insight from a renowned philosopher (other than Yogi Berra), I'm afraid that you'll be disappointed.

I am, however, a hard worker, and fortunately I've had the advantage of being able to learn the editing game first-hand by observing the way Steve has done the job "re-birthing" the journal the past two-and-one-half years. So if you find that EFQ still appears to be holding its own, don't thank me: give credit to our many fine contributors and to Steve's guiding influence. If some day EFQ becomes more than the proverbial "labor of love" (and with the hours it requires, it had better!), that's all the thanks I'll need.

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN has been publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly the past three years, and beginning with the Fall, 2000 issue, its editor as well.

This column first appeared in EFQ 18:1, Winter 2001

© 2001 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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