As a kid, I worked in a baseball stadium. I arrived hours before the game. I saw the sprinklers watering the field. I saw the first players meander out for their stretches. I saw baskets of balls carried to the pitcher’s mound and the opening pops of batting practice.
It never occurred to me, watching this gentle, orderly process, that the game of baseball could one day become a complete and unholy mess.
But it has. Oscar Madison’s laundry basket is neater than this.
Consider the past week. You had an All-Star Game that ended in a tie because the managers refused to ask multimillionaire pitchers to work more than two innings. You had a commissioner saying two of his franchises might lack enough money to last the season. You had players bristling at the idea of drug tests, even as fans told pollsters they believed their heroes were juiced.
And, oh yeah, the threat of a strike.
That’s some week. Mike Tyson doesn’t have weeks that bad. Yet in the end, when all the culprits are lined against the wall, baseball can only point to the face in the mirror.
Its name is Greed.
The wealthy owners
Let’s begin with money. The reason so many teams are in trouble is because they can’t do enough business to cover their payrolls. The reason their payrolls are so high is because players demand astronomical salaries. The reason players demand those salaries is because certain owners are too greedy to resist paying them. The reason certain owners can afford to pay them is that they’re too greedy to share extra money they get from local TV and other sources. And the only thing that would keep these greedy owners in check, a salary cap, doesn’t exist because the players are too greedy to agree to one.
You’ll notice that the word “fan” does not appear in that circle.
Now, under normal free-market circumstances, the richest would survive. They would eat the others and form multinational conglomerates, and we would have two or three people owning all the teams. Kind of like the cellular phone industry. But as a famous sports movie once said: “Every time I call it a sport, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a sport.”
So we are told it would be bad if all the teams were owned by a small group. And we are told it would be bad if 30 different cities didn’t each have a franchise.
And then we are told that, even though the business stinks, any time an owner wants to sell his team, there’s another rich fool willing to shell out hundreds of millions to get into the club.
The moneyed players
Meanwhile, while the owners fight over their still-closed books, the players are convinced they are gods on earth. They are not here to cater to the mortal fools who cheer them. They’re here for their own legends.
And so if one starts to pull away from the pack, others want to catch up. If one swallows a questionable supplement or sticks himself with steroids, others do the same. Never mind that children wishing to be like their heroes might endanger themselves in the process. Never mind that a game won by outside substances is not a fair game.
Never mind. There’s a higher calling involved here. It’s called being a god, and with it comes money and fame and adulation. Whatever it takes. That’s what you do.
Finally, the fans, simple as they may be, want only to see a game. And last Tuesday night in Milwaukee, when the best were playing the best, the game was called off after 11 innings. The reason: They didn’t want to “overwork” the pitchers.
Translation: Our “investments” are more vital than your interest.
Greed again. Pretty soon, watching baseball won’t be much different from watching the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. People yell and scream and win and lose there, too.
But it doesn’t resemble the game I remember, the one that unfolded like a flag in the breeze. They say baseball is a game rich in tradition. I say it’s becoming a game of memories.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. on WJR-AM (760).