Baseball is over.
Hold on, don't panic. I'm not referring to the sport itself, not yet anyway, but rather to Ken Burns's star-crossed PBS mini-series, whose conclusion gave me the best excuse I could find to finally reconnect with you, my poor, suffering minions. About that series I would have much to say, but the most imperative is this: Of all the mythical and metaphorical legends and symbols that Burns highlighted in his film, isn't it most incredible that this epic, three years in the making and scheduled for TV months ahead of time, reached its superlative finale just as we arrived at the first October in 90 years without a baseball championship to be played? The concluding sentiments, in the final episode,of so many of his interview subjects were so much more profound, and ironic, in that context: "One thing I never worry about is baseball. I know it will always be there." "They can't kill baseball, no matter how hard they try, it always comes back."
And all the images Burns presented, both throughout the series and at its conclusion, felt so much more meaningful in the absence of real baseball. If this had been a normal season, much of this would have seemed overly sentimental and syrupy: what's the big deal, it's only baseball, why are they giving it some kind of eulogy? Instead, all of the hyperbole fit perfectly with the reality of the moment: a eulogy was precisely what was called for, and especially appropriate at the conclusion of a comprehensive retrospective on the sport. In Ken Burns's wildest dreams he could not have imagined a more ideal scenario for the presentation of his chef d'oevre.
For those reasons, it is difficult to judge the documentary impartially, and I really don't care to try. I watched it, as I know you all did, both as the only smidgeon of baseball available anywhere, and as the cornerstone of a very personal reflection on my own lifetime of baseball obsession. By the end, my emotions were similar to those I felt while watching Field of Dreams: a deep sense of meaning and connection to my heritage, both national and family, poignant and uplifting. The images from 1986 were unexpectedly upsetting, despite how often I've seen them. But surprisingly, what affected me the most from the final episode was Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series home run off Eckersley: it's that kind of mythical thrill that baseball has repeatedly provided, in real time, to so many of us, and what really has kept us coming back for more. My girlfriend half-jokingly scoffed at the overkill of the series, but last year she was pulled out of her seat with even more excitement than I was at Joe Carter's Championship-clinching home run (how long ago it seems).
And yet, the final feeling was the unavoidable awareness of loss, for indeed, there is no baseball this October. Another image from the end of the miniseries was of a ballpark covered with snow, accompanied by a narration about the inevitable return of Spring, and with it baseball. I instantly reflected on so many Springs when the excitement of an approaching new season was the most enjoyable sensation possible. And I realized that I won't feel that way next Spring. You see, the loss that I feel is not for the games that aren't being played, nor for "baseball" itself: it is for my love of baseball. I just don't care anymore. I didn't even want them to settle the strike, because the remainder of the season would have been a farce (it was almost a farce before the strike, too, with 9 potential 50 home run candidates...). And at this moment I feel the same about next year: I want these guys to suffer for what they've done, to lose as much income as possible (players and owners), and to discover the hard way that the ultimate stupidity of their actions was that they took the fans for granted. If someone as singularly devoted to baseball as I have been for 28 years can legitmately lose interest, then the national magnitude of the folly of this strike could be immeasurable.
So, maybe I do mean that Baseball itself is over, maybe for me, maybe for all of us, at least as we have known and cherished the professional game. First of all, I don't see the major leagues returning in unaltered form, patching up the differences and starting in all over again. That may have happened in '81 and all the other years, but this one has gone too far to leave the game unscathed, or unchanged. If Congress passes a modified revokation of the anti-trust exemption, allowing the Union to sue owners in court, the players have indicated they will call off the strike (got to get back to paychecks, after all), and there won't be much the owners can do in the short run. There may be some kind of binding arbitration, and certainly some court cases that could take years. Meanwhile, however, rest assured that the owners will exact some measure of revenge, by not signing free agents, and indirectly colluding to minimize bidding for others.
That's the most "optimistic" scenario, and perhaps a realistic one, since everybody wants to get the games and the revenue moving again. But there are plenty of more extreme scenarios, including the moving or even bankruptcy of several teams; more strong anti-trust changes that mess with the minor leagues; the attempted formation of new major leagues, including player- ownership; and of course the possibility that the strike goes on into next year, with the spectre of replacement players, and even greater long-term disruption. I'm trying not to be an alarmist, but at this moment it really feels as if baseball as we know it will never be the same again. And as a result, it will be hard to ever care about the sport in the same way.
For the record, I still blame the players. Specifically, I blame Donald Fehr, that sanctimonius putz who doesn't seem to give a damn about the game, and who piously tries to promote the ridiculous idea that the Major League Players Association is a "labor union," and that this strike has anything to do with true labor rights issues. This "union" consists of a mere 600 men, earning an average of $1.2-million, with the lowest-paid earning $104,000, plus a world of benefits. I don't care if the owners are blatantly lying about every fact and number, and are hording hundreds of millions in excess profits, major league baseball players are not exploited workers! They are highly privileged, extremely wealthy performers, most of them younger than 35 years old, who by the way often have plenty of other money-making opportunities through endorsements, selling their autographs, and the like.
This strike is simply about a power struggle between two interest groups over splitting the revenue pie. Fehr and his supporters have planted the idea in the players' minds that they are being screwed, and that they must "fight back". All you ever read are the rehearsed quotes of the player representatives about their solidarity, but I haven't heard anything from, for example, the Dominican players or others from poor backgrounds for whom even $104,000 is a mint, who typically send money back home, many of whom haven't learned about investments and savings and are thus rendered essentially broke by the strike. How many players in their private thoughts, at least, have asked what is the point of jeopardizing so much money (and remember, some won't be coming back next season at all), for what is characterized as a matter of "principle," and probably wouldn't affect most of them personally in any event? After all, the worst case scenario for the players, a salary cap precisely as proposed by the owners wouldn't reduce the present salaries of those under contract, wouldn't reduce the minimum salary, and would still assure that the average player would earn a million or more. Roger Clemens has already sacrificed, what, $1- or 2-million in income due to this strike? Would he really have lost much more than that between now and the end of his career, under even the most unfavorable salary cap plan? And even if he did, is Roger Clemens really so mistreated if he only earns $30-million during his career, instead of $40-million?
The basic reason I'm pissed at the players and Fehr is because they clearly don't care about the game and the fans. Fehr pushed them to strike in August because he believed it was a strategically good gamble: that the owners wouldn't risk losing the World Series revenue, so they would be forced to cave in. There was no impending action that required a strike at that time. Nobody's salary was going to be cut on August 13th; they weren't going to lose their dental insurance in September. If the owners chose to declare an impasse and impose a salary cap after the season, the players could have struck then, going into next season. Oh, but they wouldn't have had as much "leverage" in March and April. So, oh well, they had to sacrifice the World Series to make their principled stand. The fans? What do they have to do with anything? They'll come back after we beat the owners into submission with our hard-nosed "strategy".
One very telling comment in this regard came from Braves representative and Massachusetts native Tom Glavine. Talking about the owners concerns for small market teams, he said something to the effect that "if Pittsburgh is too small a market to support a major league team, they should move to Phoenix or St. Petersburgh, but don't make the players pay for Pittsburgh..." This is really the attitude of most players, it appears: just move somewhere else to make me more money. There is no thought for the thousands of Pirate fans, who have had a team in their city for more than a hundred years: to the players, those "fans" are faceless and wholly interchangeable with new "fans" in another city. Fans are just customers in this view of things; they just buy the product.
But that's not really the case. Fans are fans, and are loyal, and thus willing to pay money, because we feel as if we are a legitimate part of the game itself. We root for the Red Sox because they are in our home town, because the franchise has been here for as long as we've been alive, and because we feel connected to the history and legend. I have more of a personal stake in the Red Sox' fortunes than does Mike Greenwell: I've been rooting for them since years before he was in the organization. And if anyone thinks that this sounds silly and presumptuous, well, we're the ones who pay the money. I know I've harped on this, but a new crop of fans in a new city could not simply inherit the tradition of an old franchise; it must be earned, and sometimes it never happens. Do you think that the financial difficulties of Seattle, San Diego, Milwaukee, and so forth are just due to their small size? Heck, Boston is no bigger than any of those cities. Those franchises are in trouble also because they haven't become entrenched enough in the fans' minds and hearts to generate the kind of intense interest and loyalty that the Red Sox have. Sure, some of it has to do with "marketing," but a lot of it simply has to do with tradition. The Colorado Rockies may thrive for a while, and other new franchises might gain quick support in sports-starved cities, but to survive in the long run they will need to engender loyalty, and that can't happen when you're moving around every few years in search of a quick cash infusion.
On another level, the fans generate the revenues and the paychecks through TV viewership, which will remain sufficient to pay outrageous salaries only so long as the national audience on the whole feels they are getting a worthwhile product. To put it another way, a sport's revenues would certainly increase, and potential salaries with them, if the national fan audience perceived an increasing quality and value in the sport, and would decrease if the opposite occurred. This fact is what renders the hockey lockout so idiotic, and virtually opposite from the baseball strike: hockey was on the verge of a natinal resurgence in popularity, which would have driven revenues far higher, undoubtedly more than enough to support present and anticipated salary inflation. The hockey owners are myopically looking at the most recent experience, and instead of basking in the gains about to appear, they are worrying about possible losses. The results are that they are killing all of the momentum that would have brought the gains, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that will jetison the sport back to the third-class status it has endured for 20 years.
In baseball, the situation is entirely different. Revenues are not on the upswing; the latest network TV contract is far lower than the previous one. Although attendance is up, in large part due to the two new teams, there is no certainty that this will continue for very long, and the losses in the TV revenues probably exceed gate receipt gains (I really don't know the numbers, but I suppose this is more or less right). Yet player salaries have continued to escalate, creating the head-on confrontation we now have. The risk of competitive imbalance is especially great if revenues, or even revenue growth, are declining significantly.
And here, once again, is where the strike is so stupid. With TV revenues already declining, the players are cutting off their nose to spite their face, as it is the marginal fans, not the hard core, who make all the difference in TV ratings. At World Series time, the ratings are driven by those lukewarm fans who tune in for the first time all year. Everyone knows that the present sky-high salaries are a direct consequence of the resurgence of baseball interest that started with the 1975 World Series, which brought a huge new set of marginal fans closer into the game (coincidentally at the same time as free agency was initiated). A year without a World Series is likely to drive away just as many marginal fans, who were already dropping off anyway in recent years. The lame 3-division format and suspected ball juicing were blatant attempts by the owners to shore up fan interest, especially in the late and post-season when TV coverage dominates. By going on strike when they did, the players not only killed their own incomes for the rest of the year, but they probably helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy for the owners, by virtually assuring that the revenue decline which prompted the confrontation will accelerate. Taking the fans for granted is the most foolhardy mistake of all, for which the Players' Union (and yes, the owners) will pay immeasurably.
I'm not interested, at this time, in proposing idealistic "solutions". I honestly feel that it's too late, that total restructuring is necessary and inevitable, and that 20th Century baseball is now a thing of history. It may be history, too, as far as my own interest is concerned. There have been other things that I've loved and been devoted to that have also passed on, and looking back I sometimes wonder why they meant so much. Baseball has often been described as an addiction, and Rotisserie baseball is especially narcotic. I can't say that this cold turkey withdrawal has been all that painful: it's more like waking up. Maybe there are better things to do with our time, our money, our lives.
But the sadness lingers. In October 1986, I attended the 7th game of the A.L. playoffs, after indulging in the adrenaline rush of Game 5, and sat in the bleachers as the Sox won the pennant. Jim Rice, who had been struggling the entire series, hit a 3-run homer to put that game away, a net job that brought out more ecstasy in that crowd than I have ever experienced, and was my most thrilling moment at Fenway park. I wrote about it then, as I've been writing baseball missives with some regularity for about 15 years. The fan and writer I was then would have sliced up the skeptic I have become with a bowie knife, pointing out all of the fallacies in my pessimistic outlook. I can only look back at him now and declare that "the thrill is gone".
Comments? Questions? Neaderthal grunts?
Back to Baseball Journal front page
The Good IV League
David N. Townsend Home Page
(c) 1997 David N. Townsend