Picture this: bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, Cecil Fielder at the plate. He wipes his brow with his Right Guard sweatband. He tugs his McDonald’s cap. Now he crouches low, twirling his Valvoline bat, and here comes the pitch, the ball moving so fast you can’t even see the Nike logo. .
. .

Sound far-fetched? You haven’t been paying attention to our national pastime. And that’s the problem: Not enough people are paying attention — certainly not enough TV viewers — and, as a result, baseball and its spend-happy ways must seek new wells into which to drop the bucket.

How’s the sleeve, the sock and the helmet sound?

Everything is for sale in baseball. Or will be in a matter of weeks, once the new TV agreement is signed. Without boring you with details, this new deal basically says, “We, the TV networks — who have been giving you your biggest source of money for years — are through taking chances. From here on in, the money’s cut in half. And you go get the ads. You take the risk. Got it?”

Baseball got it. And it’s selling it. Already, the minutes between innings have been auctioned off. Down at Tiger Stadium Sunday, we had the
“Sherwin-Williams Sure Win Inning” in the fourth, the “White Castle Great Moments in Baseball” in the fifth, the “National Coney Island Celebrity Sing Along” in the seventh.

The rights to the bleachers have been sold. The wall behind home plate now spins ads like a slot machine. Even the tarp has a sponsor.

The tarp?

“On behalf of all grass-covering materials, I’m very happy to be representing Prudential Securities, and I plan to unroll better than I ever did before. Thank you for coming . . . “

The tarp? Sparky isn’t worried

So it’s just a matter of time before baseball, in its desperate attempt to make every player a billionaire before his first major league double, starts selling space on the players’ bodies. Just like golf, or tennis, or the race car circuit, where drivers look like they were dipped in glue, then rolled in a field of promotional posters.

Now, depending on whom you ask, this is either the end of the world or no big whoop. Sparky Anderson is in the latter group. Then again, he may have a deal worked out with Grecian Formula.

“Oh, it’s gonna happen,” he admitted Sunday afternoon. “They’ll put them logos on. They gotta keep coming up with money to pay the players.

“You know why? Cause it’s show business. And nobody never takes a pay cut in show business.

“You know why? Cause they don’t have to.”

What about tradition, Sparky was asked? What about the fact that baseball players — unlike European bicyclists — have never been billboards?

“What was was was,” he said, rubbing his white-haired chest, “and what is is is.”

Sparky. Such a way with words.

Can it be that simple? Is the selling of everything from the seats to the home run measurements really just another notch in the history of the game, like the designated hitter, or Spandex?

Or is this something more serious, a sign that, with no one left to bilk, the game will chew on itself, handing out pieces to the highest bidder?

Well, Sparky is right about one thing. Players will never take a pay cut. Not as long as there is one more fool out there willing to buy a team for $100 million because he wants to impress his friends.

But the game will change. Money runs out. And, needing dollars to feed the beast, teams will drill in the last virgin territory: those games you now watch free on your TV set.

Pay-per-view. Playoffs and regular season.

Now there’s a proposition: Four hours’ worth of foul balls and crotch-scratching — and you pay for it.

We’ll see who’s a real fan then. Bad image hurts the game

It’s coming, mark my words. Or mark Sparky’s — since he’s not worried at all:

“All this talk about the game being in trouble, it’s crazy. You see how many people they draw in Colorado? They say kids don’t like baseball. Well, who the heck is filling them seats? It ain’t the grandfathers, cause the years pass and them grandfathers are dying.

“It’s show business. And people always pay for show business. Frank Sinatra can walk into a place, walk out that same night with $2 million. And he’s 97 years old, ain’t he?

“Baseball will never have to worry, not for eternity.”

Of course, this is the man who once told us Torey Lovullo, mark your All-Star ballots.

The truth is, baseball is hurting. Fans are not coming to all ballparks, just some. Ratings have sunk. And image — thanks to surly, millionaire players and owners — is bad and getting worse. The first-place Tigers, despite a refurbished stadium and the best offense since the LA Lakers, are still averaging 7,000 fewer fans per game than they did in 1984, the last time their beginning was so exciting.

So baseball can yawn. It can sell another body part, smile at Colorado, and hit the Jacuzzi. But someday, in the not-too- distant future, going to the ballpark will be like watching one long commercial.

And even Sinatra fans might say, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.

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