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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Rethinking the National Pastime
By Tom Goldstein

Two weeks removed from the horrific terrorist attacks that have stunned, saddened, and outraged Americans, I still struggle with what might be an appropriate topic for the publisher of a baseball journal like Elysian Fields Quarterly to write about at a time such as this. Unlike other baseball magazines and daily newspapers, EFQ has never viewed our national game as being played in a vacuum, impervious to the societal forces that shape us all. Yet we are not unmindful of the fact that many of those who have been affected in one way or another by the tragedies in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. may want nothing more from baseball at this time than simply nine innings of uninterrupted play. And perhaps that's how another publisher would handle things, leaving the deeper issues for another time, a less frightening period when our lives may seem more within our control. But with our government a hair trigger away from plunging one hemisphere of the world into a full-scale conflict from which there may be no turning back, I'm not sure when a more peaceful time will again prevail.

So I'd like to suggest, respectfully, that there may never be a better time than the present for Major League Baseball to finally begin addressing its longstanding internal problems. Bud Selig has had a copy of the Blue Ribbon Report on his desk since July of 2000, and yet nothing has been done to implement any of that report's findings on revenue sharing and increasing competitiveness. A cloud of uncertainty has hung over the 2002 season for almost three years now, but rather than beginning to conduct negotiations, Selig has merely postured in public and slapped a gag order on team owners who might otherwise be willing to engage in dialogue with the players.

Given that hundreds of thousands of Americans might lose their jobs if the ripple effect of the incidents of September 11 continue to slow our economy—not to mention the chilling effect that the potential casualties of war and future terrorism will have on our national psyche—is it asking too much of Selig to actually show some leadership as the supposed steward of our national pastime? Is it unfair to expect the baseball commissioner to finally begin insisting—loudly and publicly—that all broadcast revenues (both local and national) must be shared if the major leagues are to survive? Too much to ask billionaire owners to finally put an end to corporate blackmail and stop the "new stadium or else" threats? Undemocratic that handsomely paid players should be willing to accept a fair salary cap tied to league revenues?

These rhetorical questions are not meant to minimize or ignore the good and decent things that Major League Baseball has done in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster. MLB and the Players Association have both agreed to donate $5 million each to a jointly administered relief fund that will provide for the New York City victims, and the Mets' and Yankees' clubs have independently donated $1 million each (many other major league teams have held fundraisers as well) towards similar relief efforts. Obviously, no one disputes the capacity for generosity among professional baseball people.

But let's examine the broader picture here. Prior to September 11, the New York Yankees and Mets organizations had both been actively pursuing new stadium deals for their respective franchises, with the individual price tags for the proposed complexes in Manhattan and Queens now estimated to be in the neighborhood of $800 million each! While both teams have had the good grace not to discuss these projects publicly in the midst of the current tragedy in New York, there's also been no talk that the plans have been abandoned. Truth be told, what's a million bucks when the payoff could be eight hundred times that amount? And what's $5 million from a monopoly industry that has used its muscle to leverage an estimated $5-7 billion in publicly-financed new stadium construction during the past decade? To be exact, less than one-half percent of baseball's annual revenues.

Like many of you, I am challenged to make sense of a world no longer insular, an America that has been dragged into the maelstrom of terrorism and fear that most of us have been able to conveniently avoid for most of our lives. So for me, at times like these, everything is up for grabs: Who we are. What we do. Why we're alive. And if Americans are going to be asked to die and sacrifice in a "war against terrorism," then I think it's perfectly acceptable to ask the unthinkable of the billionaire owners who control our national pastime. So I've got the following demands:

 

• That there be no more stadium blackmail.

• No more work stoppages.

• No more mallparks that push fans into the stratosphere for the sake of luxury boxes that will one day sit empty from a lack of interest.

• No more contracts like the ones that pay Alex Rodriguez $25 million a year to play shortstop for the last-place Texas Rangers and Manny Ramirez $20 million per for the perennial also-ran Red Sox.

• That World Series and playoff games begin in the late afternoon—ratings be damned!—so that the next generation of kids can experience the same excitement that baby boomers felt when our country had the luxury of focusing on baseball's Fall Classic, rather than seeing the games merely become advertising vehicles for beer, new cars, and whatever sex-packed fall lineup Fox is promoting each year.

• That Wrigley Field and Fenway Park be immediately designated as historic ballparks that Major League Baseball will preserve and renovate to keep as active venues in Chicago and Boston.

• And, finally, that "America the Beautiful" become the national anthem that we sing before the start of every game.

 

If it's time for Americans to come together in a show of solidarity and patriotism for our country, then it is also a time for the owners and players to come together in solidarity for the sake of our national pastime. Baseball belongs to the fans, especially those who have watched their sport victimized by the never-ending "corporatization" at the ballpark the past decade. If the game is ever to be returned to us, let it be now. Because if not now, then never.

—EFQ

 

Editor's note: Fans who wish to contribute to baseball's relief fund should send contributions to: MLB-MLBPA Disaster Relief Fund, Attention: Cathy Bradley, 245 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10167

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN was born in Washington, D.C. He believes in American ideals.

This column first appeared in EFQ 18:4, Fall 2001

© 2001 Tom Goldstein

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