Trust No One: A World Series Post-Mortem


We're trying not to be bitter about the state of Major League Baseball, even though it's clear that baseball needs a new house -- and not any more new stadiums, as every other owner in the league keeps telling you, the latest being Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who will sell his team to a North Carolina businessman once he gets approval from a committee of MLB rubber-stampers. The last one before him was the owner of the world champion Florida Marlins, Wayne Huizenga, who's been attempting to leverage his position as local corporate welfare franchisee and fan-hostage taker for some time now.

Huizenga's Marlins won a World Series that reeked of behind-the-scenes prurulence, with NBC sports honcho Don Ohlmeyer expressing a hope that the Series end in a quick sweep, since teams such as Miami and Cleveland aren't good for ratings. So bad was it that even NBC voice Bob Costas apologized. It gets very tempting to suggest that the little black box into which baseball has been squeezing itself is starting to look like a coffin for Our National Pastime.

The fact that lonely, desperate fans stampeded back to the horsehide teat after the baseball strike in '94 seems to have convinced owners that we are gluttons for punishment, and that they can do as they please so long as they can lay the blame for their screwups on something else -- greedy players, or the weather. However, bitching about players' salaries is almost as old as baseball itself, and you don't need the rectitude and intellect of a Reggie Jackson to recognize a megalomanical felon in George Steinbrenner.

Other dreary constants: as pedestrian and small-minded as the current Acting Commissioner is, toupee-model Bud Selig's lingering banality is just a reminder there's never really been such a thing as a truly independent commissioner -- for longer than a month or so at a time, anyway.

Did someone say "quality of play?" For twenty years baseball's talent pool has been drained to a muddy bog by expansion and not even Sports Illustrated would pretend it isn't getting worse. What's the forecast? Well, ask five or six 10-year-old inner city kids who their favorite athelete is, and dollars will get you shinsplints none will say Cal Ripken.

If the World Series wasn't as great as you thought it should be, don't blame the Marlins or the Indians -- they didn't ask to start a game in Cleveland at half past eight in late October, in weather so cold players were practically spitting icicles. Who doesn't think it was more enjoyable playing hooky in order to watch an afternoon game -- or sneaking into the employee lounge to catch a few innings -- than it is nodding off at 11:30 PM in front of a game that's still in the top of the sixth?

Baseball has always been the most fun sport to watch across all levels, and it's just this makeshift, almost serviceable quality which has helped made it such a resiliant and durable attraction. After all, at least bad baseball can be amusing -- unlike bad football.

Speaking of which, if you refuse to believe television can be harmful, consider the Super Bowl: the griddy game that's played in all conditions hangs on through the winter only to snuff itself into isometric oblivion in airconditioned anticlimax at the end of January, held in whichever Sun Belt town can best wine and dine the NFL brass. At this point it's only those new commercials and SADD keep most of us watching past the first quarter.

Whose fault is it? Forget about the "virtualizing" of everything decent in the world, or the sanctimonious, pious sportswriters who've been cashing in on August reveries and guaranteed library sales of dull tomes for twenty years now.

It's Congress's fault.

Because the longest-running act in sports politics is the perennial charade of Congressional investigations into Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption. For most of baseball's history, this exemption served to indenture ballplayers by prohibiting them from negotiating with other teams once their contracts had expired, but Marvin Miller and the players' union took care of that one -- for major leaguers, anyway. What remains, however, is major league baseball's right to grant franchises and otherwise restrict other professional teams' entry into established markets. Thus the bush-league tactics of spoiling for new stadiums and tax concessions by presenting budgets and forecasts and which equivocate profit reports as bizarrely as Hollywood gross accounting.

Baseball's ownership has always been able to count on popular support for its antitrust exemption, since baseball fans are conservative -- some fans still feel betrayed by the season's lengthening to 162 games from 154 back when -- and people seem to feel the world would be different without the Phillies. But recent developments such as realignment and interleague play -- let alone the traditional callous disregard of team owners for the cities which host them -- have eliminated any vestige of tradition.

It's time for new ideas -- and so, to stem the rising chant of "Break up the National League" that's being heard in all quarters these days, herewith some creative remedies. It isn't easy, considering the quarters to be satisfied -- not just fans and players, but federal, state, and local governments, as well as television networks, and banana republics -- and most importantly, the business of baseball.

1) Let the players run the teams. (When baseball started, of course, this is just how "ball clubs" operated.) Mandating employee ownership thus would not only establish beyond doubt that the dumbest middle reliever could do a better job in the front office than the Cardinals' current management, it would create a whole new white-collar class to loathe: the "good-field-no-hit shortstop who doesn't grasp local cable issues" or the "pheenom righthanded power pitcher/ticket-scalper/secretary-fondler." Plus, allowing for some grandfathering brings in the very appealing prospect of George Steinbrenner getting beaned in his only early-season at-bat.

2) Put all baseball franchises under the control of local municipal governments, which are better at mustering corrupt revenues for businesses and city bureaucrats anyway. Making patronage jobs of managers and coaches would certainly heighten voter interest in local political races. For laughs, "workfare" employees could be moved out of street-sweeping duty and onto the field for expanded rosters in September. (A bonus: using stadiums to alleviate public-school classroom overcrowding.)

3) Enlist all baseball players into the Central Intelligence Agency. This would baffle our enemies abroad -- at home, the free tickets and snuff would undoubtedly revitalize the beleaguered spookopoly. "Teams" of advisors barnstorming through Latin America could provide some very novel incentives for locals unwilling to "play ball."

4) Legalize baseball betting and turn ballparks into pari-mutuel settings. Make Pete Rose commissioner, and Don King and Bob Arum league presidents. Not only does this provide a socially profitable (albeit namby-pamby) solution to the illegal-wagering scourge known as "rotisserie baseball," it will allow Marge Schott to feel rehabilitated. Which is something we all need.