On the one hand, the stage seems set for a banner year for major league baseball. The competition for the increasingly tight sports buck is in a shambles with the problems of the NFL skyrocketing and those of the NBA, which could prove to be even deeper, about to begin.
But then, epic uncertainties are hardly confined to the fun and games industry. As international turmoil mounts, putting the squeeze on the domestic economic recovery with soaring gas prices as the driving (no pun intended) factor, it would not be much of a leap to the spectacle of declining gates at America’s ball yards. Put it this way: It’s an equation that has potential merit.
Meanwhile, down in the winter/spring LaLa Lands of the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues where the kids are trying to bend over and touch their toes without busting quads or snapping hamstrings, serene indifference reigns quite as usual.
Those who govern baseball have lately proclaimed our times to be the grand old game’s “Golden Age.” That’s heady stuff. They offer facts -- at least of the sort they favor -- to affirm it. Team revenues, player salaries, and prices that fans gleefully pay do indeed smash record levels annually; as do owners’ profits. In this robust and merry scam everyone wins but the fans. Although you wonder if the suckers, who tend to measure their devotions by the degrees of their sacrifice, would have it otherwise. The darn fools.
Others, however, who are not hooked on money as the only meaningful standard of measurement, have doubts. They cite warning signs like ebbing interest in the crucial television dimension. Gate receipts may have held nicely but the TV numbers that define broader appeal in all the enclaves that don’t have MLB franchises have not.
Baseball’s signature events, most noticeably its large post-season package, which soon may further expand, are slumping. In the vital ratings game, baseball gets clobbered by football, although that could change if football’s labor crisis goes bonkers. Gaining on baseball on the outside rail is NASCAR, at least in the Sun Belt and Midwest, which would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Baseball does not thrive on the networks.
Nor does it fare well on the playgrounds. In rural America, where once baseball was a religious rite of summer, the game is withering away. Minor leagues are reduced to a precious few while the semi-pro, town team, industrial, military, park, and even beer leagues are largely gone. In one’s lifetime, the change has been colossal.
Meanwhile the game grows lustily from the Caribbean to the Far East. There’s a message there somewhere, although signals coming from the international play, which has seen Japan beat America at its own game, are deceiving.
Is our beloved national pastime fading, the immensity of the moneys floating on the top of the bubble notwithstanding? Hardly a week goes by without some learned know-it-all emoting weightily on that theme in yet another learned journal.
The learned commissioner, the Honorable Bud Selig, has appointed a committee consisting of 14 sachems and savants from all walks of baseball life to study this transcendental question. Reputedly they will examine --with the intensity only a 14-member committee can summon -- such vexing matters as the speed of the game. It is much too slow, you know, for these hyped-up, high-rolling times. Or so those who never played it and rarely watch it like to say, if only to hear themselves say it.
While at it, the illustrious committee might consider why it is necessary to pay Czar Selig more than $18 million a year to appoint committees to do his job for him. At least that’s what the owners were paying him the last time his annual salary was posted a year or so ago. It was $18.35 million per annum, to be precise. It may have swelled a bit since, with cost of living allowances and all that. What you and I would call, “COLAs.” chum.
In addition to these lingering Gordian Knots, other issues that might blight the sunshine of a blissful season plus problems that should be corrected include:
1.The structure of the post-season. There seemed determination to come to grips with this last Fall. But Selig is adept at ducking the tough ones. The inequities of the wild-card system must be addressed. It’s long overdue. The most radical proposal would add another wild card in each league requiring Wild Card Elimination rounds, which would theoretically leave the winners worn out and appropriately disadvantaged in the next playoff series. Clever, eh? But it would hardly solve the bigger problem of the length of the playoffs which threatens to extend beyond Armistice Day one of these years.
2.The deficiencies of revenue sharing; or the weak sisters’ rip-offs. This has nothing to do with the protestations of the game’s power-mongers like those out of Boston and New York, although they are well within their rights to beef about the unfairness of the system. Let’s face it: Allowing Pittsburgh to go on profiting about $35 million every year for the honor of finishing last has become ludicrous.
3.What to do About the Dodgers and the Mets? Both are monumental embarrassments with problems seemingly unsolvable in the short term. The divorce wars of the swinging McCourts, those cute kids who with luck might have owned the Red Sox, may make the Dodgers outcasts indefinitely. While the Wilpon Family’s consorting with Bernie Madoff may cost them a billion bucks, making a prized franchise the welfare buddy of the Kansas City Royals. Won’t the Yankees love having to shovel revenue sharing dough over to the Mets.
4.The deficiencies of inter-league play. Selig’s mid-season pride and joy has run out of fans both among those who play the games and those who watch them. The inequities are ridiculous. This summer, the Cubs will have to play the Red Sox, Yankees, and their tenacious cross-town rivals the White Sox, while the Cards -- with whom the Cubs most contend for a playoff berth -- get the Orioles, Blue Jays, and their weak cross-state rivals, the Royals. A stray series (like the Red Sox-Cubs) still has charm but overall this cheap gimmick has lost its luster.
5.What to do about the Rays and the A’s? Which is all about the inadequacy of their ballparks, with neither issue having much apparent chance of resolution much to the detriment of both teams. This has led to talk of possibly eliminating both franchises, which would be tragic, especially in the case of Tampa which has otherwise become a splendid young franchise. Many believe the Florida Marlins are a candidate for contraction, too, even if they do have a nice new ballpark. Florida hardly needed two teams.
6.The Roger Clemens fiasco. It’s coming. Extensive daily coverage. To a cable news outlet near you. Soon! In addition to completing the destruction of the erstwhile Rocket, it could be a major league fiasco for the entire game depending on what tactics Roger’s off-the-wall barristers employ in trying to get their boy off the hook, which many believe is a hopeless task. The Clemens mess has already impacted the pennant race. For it’s doubtless the reason Andy Pettitte, who will be required to testify, chose to quit the Yankees. Maybe now shrill Red Sox Nation will lighten up on poor Rocket.
7. Labor talks begin to stir. With the beloved Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) soon expiring there will be early and very tentative talks beginning later this spring. This being baseball’s “Golden Age,” everyone assumes they’ll be a frolic. But the issues slowly emerging are loaded.
Wait until the lads tangle with Selig’s next brainstorm, one having to do with the possibility of what’s called “geographic re-alignment,” which would contract two teams, create four divisions, and effectively eliminate the American and National Leagues as we have historically known them. How easily do you think that will go down?
One has every confidence Baseball can beat Football, Basketball, or any other bloody game when it comes to producing a nasty, good old-fashioned, genuine labor dispute. It always has.