Reviving Baseball, & Other Ideas
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/1/02
  It is said baseball is a game for little boys & old men. In most ways, that’s true. As I write this, in young middle age- 37- I have to say that the last few years have revived a love in the grand old game that was missing since Reggie Jackson left the New York Yankees in the early 1980s, & the Yanks slid slowly into late 80s-early 90s oblivion. By the time the Yanks rebounded in 1994- the last strike year, the 1 without a World Series- to post the best AL record my interest was revived. That the Yankees have played in 5 of the last 6 World Series, & won 4 of them (including 3 in a row- 1998-2000) is definitely a part of that. The 1998 season especially 1 for the ages. Even last year, when the Yanks lost to the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks in a 7 game thriller decided on a bloop single off the Yanks’- & baseball’s- best reliever, Mariano Rivera, there was something intriguing. From spring training a part of me knew the Yanks would fail in their quest to win 4 in a row. Yet, they almost beat fate- they came back from an 0-2 hole in the playoffs to beat the Oakland A’s on a miraculous play by shortstop Derek Jeter, they thrashed a Seattle Mariners team that tied the all-time record for wins in a season, & took a lead into the 9th inning of Game 7 against a younger, fresher team that outplayed them thoroughly. Still, these were the Yankees- if any team could snub fate it was them. Alas….
   No game- not football (despite its über-Warriorship), nor basketball (with its almost artistic motions), nor hockey (speed + violence)- can match the awe inspired by a towering home run. Nothing in all of pro sports is as difficult as sending a ball over a fence. & 75 years after his heyday, no sports legend strides over the American psyche like Babe Ruth (the greatest home run hitter ever)- not Jim Brown nor Joe Montana in football, not Wilt Chamberlain nor Michael Jordan in basketball, & not Mario Lemieux nor Wayne Gretzky in hockey. No game is richer in history, nor drama….
  No, this is not gonna be another of those Ken Burnsian influenced essays on how baseball is a metaphor for life. No annoying midgets like Bob Costas will spread their ignorance. & dopes like Donald Hall or George Will will be shot on site if any of their bad prose infects this piece. No, this will be a straightforward essay on how to save baseball from itself. 2 weeks from the date of this posting Major League Baseball may endure its 9th work stoppage (strikes & lockouts) in about 3 decades. The owners of the game have put their faith in the most venal, deceitful, & incompetent man ever to hold the commissionership of the 4 major North American sports (baseball, football, basketball, & hockey): Bud Selig- who just so happens to be the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise- does the term conflict of interest mean anything anymore? Apparently not since Selig wanted to contract the Minnesota Twins franchise- a team far more successful on & off the field than his team in Milwaukee, who- if the Twins were gone- would have MidWest baseball fan competition only from the Seattle Mariners- a good 1500 miles west.
  The rift between the owners is rather simple. The small market owners in Minnesota, Kansas City, Oakland, etc. want the large market teams to share more of their booty with them- ala the way the NFL splits up its revenues equally amongst all teams. Yet, under the current system of revenue sharing small market teams (although any team with a Major League franchise can hardly be called small, lest not be Major- huh?) have consistently not reinvested the money shared with them in to their teams. Most noted in their stingy ways are the Cincinnati Reds of the NL, & the AL’s Kansas City Royals & Minnesota Twins (whose billionaire owner Carl Pohlad is still trying to wrangle public financing for a new stadium even though the ‘old stadium’- the Metrodome- turns a senescent 20 this year!)- who a decade ago averaged 3 million fans a year when they were winning, then tanked for a decade before rallying to produce winning clubs the last 2 years.
  Other suggestions have included salary caps like the other 3 sports have- but the strength of the MLBPA (the players’ union) has led to their successfully, & wisely, defeating such measures. The owners claim they are bankrupt & need artificial checks to keep them from killing themselves- yet less than a month after declaring that only a handful of teams made a profit in the last 5 years, MLB’s own chief accountant came forward to state that only 5 or 6 MLB teams are in mild financial straits. The fact is MLB owners have refused to open their books- unlike the other pro sports teams. Why? Because in 1922 MLB received a Supreme Court decision for them & against a former Federal League team, which gave it exemption from anti-trust laws. This made the owners of both MLB leagues- the AL & NL- de facto legal monopolies. It wasn’t until the 1960s & 1970s with the legal victories, against baseball’s reserve clause, of Curt Flood, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, & Andy Messersmith- a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher- that MLB players had the freedom to choose which team they would work/play for. Free agency had dawned.
  Yet, even then- because of their anti-trust exemption (amazing how a bunch of billionaire white male capitalists disdain true competition- & some want Marxism- when it suits them) MLB players have not had any options for other employment since before WW1, when the Federal League was ended in a backroom deal- which later spurred the Federal’s Baltimore team to sue MLB. It lost, & MLB has been unchallenged since. It’s time for Congress to strip the anti-trust exemption from MLB. The other major sports leagues have had plenty in the last 50 years & thrived. The NHL survived the WHA, the NBA the ABA, & the NFL 5 upstart leagues (the AAFC, the AFL- which it merged with, the WFL, the USFL, & the XFL). But, the MLB owners probably fear their own financial incompetence will doom them. Years of monopoly can ossify a business- believe me, I work for AT&T! Nonetheless, if I were players’ union head Don Fehr I would lobby Congress hard for this. The American public loathes monopolists, yet few folk know MLB is a monopoly. However, few people feel sorry for multi-millionaire players. Even bench jockeys average ½ a mill-per-annum. A great way to win public sympathy would be for the union to offer to give up its right for player salary arbitration- won in the 1970s free agency wars- in exchange for the owners’ giving up their anti-trust exemption. The players would be saying, ‘We believe in the American way!- why don’t the owners? & no one could say the players would not be willing to compromise. The need for a salary cap would dissipate because the problem with salaries in the $10+ million range is not when superstars like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, or Sammy Sosa make that $- they ARE THE REASON that the owners are billionaires. The problem is when the bottom 10 players on each team are making $2-5 million a year & contributing little. Let the bench riders make the minimum- because few would command the multimillions they make if not for the asinine owners who ratchet up the arbitration sweepstakes by paying some backup scrub $3 million, which allows a similar scrub, with slightly better stats to say- ‘Hey, I should be making more than him.’ to which an arbitrator can only logically assent to- all because of the dumb-ass owners.
  But don’t fear for the lesser lights. Once the antitrust exemption is gone it will be less than 5 years before another group of 6-8 billionaires decide to form a rival league, & use their moolah to lure away the lesser lights, for their name value. The venture may fail- or force a merger with MLB- but then another entity will arise & the players will still benefit. & because they’ve foresworn the lucrative arbitration process they can negotiate that a good portion of that saved $ from the owners should go in to the retirement kitty for the players who played before the big $ era dawned.
  This would be both good P.R. & a sound financial move. Baseball still plays the most games & holds the country’s attention throughout the year unlike any other sport. The 1994 strike was a blow that took until the 1998 season to heal. Another strike would not kill the game, as many suggest, but possibly (for better or worse) signal the beginning of a long slide for baseball- & all pro sports- out of top rank status in human entertainment. Films, video games, & especially the burgeoning virtual reality field are likely all to eclipse pro sports within the next 20 years. The leagues will contract & the they will be no more popular, at best- by mid-century, than pro soccer is now- a game too dull & slow to tap the American psyche. Indeed, we are living at the zenith of pro sports in American life. I don’t think that in 30 or 40 years such passions will be stirred when a person can virtually really play pro sports with the Barry Bondses & Babe Ruths, or even have sex with their favorite Hollywood starlet of the past- mmmm, say Grace Kelly or Minnie Driver. In truth, all this is probably gonna happen anyway- it’ll be interesting to see how eager baseball is to herald that demise.

  On some other fronts, baseball is confronted with a ‘steroid crisis’. Yet, I hardly deem it such- yes, slugging is off the charts the last 7-8 years, due to steroids & poor pitching brought on by excessive expansion. But there’s no need to asterisk these records ala the Roger Maris debacled decision of erst-Commisioner Ford Frick in 1961. This is all part of the insidious envy of old-timers who feel they did not get their due. But the argument is really pointless. Eras change- from the deadball eras of the 1910s & 1960s to the souped-up slugging of the 1920s, 1930s, & today. Today’s players play night games, but travel in luxury unavailable to the oldsters. Oldsters benefited from a lesser even level of talent per 25 man team, yet the modern player has training equipment & regimens unknown 60-70 years ago.
  The bigger problem is reckoning within eras. Most people know the Hall Of Fames in each sport (& any field) are bloated. Years ago I advocated kicking out the majority of slackers, or at least creating a tired system- at least 3, possibly 4-5 levels. It’s a similar way that I rank poets & poems: Tier 1 would be those who, on a 1-100 scale grade out at 95+- or great. Tier 2 are the near greats (90-94), tier 3 the excellents (85-89), tier 4 the very goods (80-84), & tier 5 the goods (75-79). Recently, several others in the sports media have advocated similar structure for the Hall.
  Let’s start with the Tier 1s: this is the Babe Ruths, Ty Cobbs, Lou Gehrigs, Walter Johnsons, Joe DiMaggios, Ted Williamses, Bob Fellers, Willie Mayses, Hank Aarons, Bob Gibsons- & more modernly- the Roger Clemenses & Barry Bondses. There is no questioning they were in the top 3 in their position for a decade or more & overall their skills were top-notch- aka the Immortals.
  Tier 2s are the dominant Superstars who lack the duration of quality for whatever reason, or were 1 dimensional. These guys should make the Hall, but as secondary stars. These would be guys like a Duke Snider, Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan- or more recently an Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, or Mark McGwire or Cal Ripken, Jr.- when they are eligible in 5 years.
  Tier 3s would be guys I would leave out but for which arguments could be made- these guys were occasionally great but usually just very good &/or very long-careered. These would be the Dave Winfields, Dave Parkers, Pee Wee Reeses, Phil Rizzutos, Ron Guidrys, or George Fosters.
  A few years ago Don Sutton made the Hall. He was a good solid pitcher for over 20 years- but in his prime he never was considered in a league with Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, or Roger Clemens. He won 20 games only once in his career. He never nailed down a Cy Young Award. Yet, he made the Hall. 2 dominant pitchers from the same period as Sutton- Bruce Sutter & Rich Gossage- are still not in the Hall. Why? Because they were relief pitchers- yet they were the 2 best in their respective leagues in the late 70s-early 80s.
  Another ridiculous recent entry into the Hall is Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett- whose career was cut short by an eye injury & glaucoma & whose stats benefited greatly from playing in the homer-happy Metrodome. Puckett’s #s decline greatly when comparing his home & away stats- much like the current career of the Colorado Rockies’ Larry Walker, whose mile-high stats are aided by the rare air he plays in. Puckett was, at best, a good defensive player, was a poor base runner, & a good hitter. Greatness never touched the man, yet he made it the same year as Winfield- a far more worthy choice, although still borderline, in my view. & consider this, Puckett is in over players such as Jim Rice & Dale Murphy, players whose careers were not aided by the Metrodome, nor the slugfesting 1990s. But, entry to the Hall is not just based on #s- Rice is out because he did not coddle the media, while Puckett was lily-white Minnesota’s favorite ‘black boy’ for a decade- watermelon grinning all the way to universal love & a fat wallet. Others who have been stiffed from the Hall over media bias include Gary Carter- a better catcher than the included Carlton Fisk, who during his prime was just the 2nd best catcher in the AL, behind Thurman Munson. But Fisk played long & cultivated a good rep. Similar exclusion along the Carter/Rice lines no doubt awaits Albert Belle- the dominant early 90s slugger, as well his erstwhile teammate Frank Thomas.
  Nonetheless a tiered system would have the benefits of allowing baseball not to show the door to its many unworthies- & I won’t embarrass the motley lot tossed in mostly by Old-Timer committees. It also would allow a fairer assessment of the pantheon within, & spur endless debating over rankings, not just inclusion. But, enough with the past- let’s end with a talk on the future- baseball’s prized records.

  When Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwires 3 year old single season home run record last year it seemed that no record in baseball was safe. Especially the 755 career home run record- which, barring injury, should fall to a healthy Bonds in 3 or 4 years. But, a # of records seem to be locks. Several websites list a few, so let me comment on them.
***Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak in 1941. Enough players have put together 30 game streaks that a freak event- such as DiMaggio’s is not as unlikely as it seems. A 60 game streak might take awhile longer to come, but it will. An Ichiro Suzuki, of the Seattle Mariners, with a great combo of speed & bat skills is a possible candidate. So is a Todd Helton- playing in Colorado.
***The .424 batting average of Rogers Hornsby in 1924. Not even Ted Williams came close, & he was the last to hit .400 (actually .406) in 1941. Yet, another round of expansion could see a freak season crush that record.
***The .367 lifetime batting average of Ty Cobb. Because of its career aspect this is a lot more secure than any single season record. Pete Rose, for example, who passed Cobb as the career hits leader batted over 60 points lower!
***Hack Wilson’s 190 RBIs in 1930. Bank on this- this single season record will fall before Hornsby’s or DiMaggio’s!
***Cy Young’s 511 career wins. Think: 20 straight 25 win seasons would still leave a pitcher 11 wins shy. Unless baseball’s economics forces it back to 3 or 4 man rotations no pitcher will come close. Even then it would take an Immortal who lacked injuries.
***Rickey Henderson’s 1982 mark of 130 stolen bases. This will fall when baseball inevitably cycles back to a running style.
  There are other records, but they are so distant- 19th century, mostly- that they hold no real significance. Yet, it’s because of this storied past that baseball’s future has meaning to those not players nor owners. The solution I suggest is simple, fair, & will prove effective. Of course, MLB will never go for it. I suggest that if you read this essay in 2030 you don’t bother trying to figure out why I wrote it about a game I- & millions of other men around the world- once held a passion for. I’m sure that, given your current passion for your V.R. Marilyn Monroe, you won’t give a damn!

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