by | Dec 13, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

THERE’S THIS older woman, named Sarah, who for years ran an elevator at Tiger Stadium. Every summer, she would sit in that rickety, cell-like thing, which had no ventilation. During July and August it was a furnace.

“Do you think the Tigers could do anything?” she would gently ask, wiping her brow. “Put in air-conditioning, or get me a fan?”

Year after year, nothing was done.

Finally, a few reporters got together and bought her a portable hand fan. And there she would sit, this poor woman, running that elevator, sweating, the tiny propellers of her fan doing their meager best to cool her down — while outside, guys like Cecil Fielder were making millions a year and not winning a thing.

That’s the image I have of baseball. The owners throw all their money at the glamorous (players, stadiums) while assuming the little details — like people
— will take care of themselves.

News flash, owners: The people have returned the favor. They have given up on you. Nobody thinks of baseball as the national pastime anymore. Fewer and fewer of us watch. Kids couldn’t care less.

And when people see that Alex Rodriguez has signed a 10-year contract worth a quarter of a billion dollars they have two reactions:

1) They throw up.

2) They hate baseball even more.

“Alex is very happy,” said his agent, Scott Boras, proving that Alex is now rich enough to hire someone to smile for him. Boras — accused of seeking private jets, private merchandising tents and a private stadium office for his client — also let us know that “Alex made an owner decision. He wanted someone he could communicate with.”

Right. Never mind that Rodriguez met the owner only a few weeks ago. At $25.2 million a year, it’s so hard to find good conversation.

Does owner’s elevator go to the top?

Tom Hicks is Alex’s new chatting partner. A billionaire businessman (aren’t they all?), he paid $250 million for the Rangers in 1998. He has now given that much and $2 million more to one player, which makes him the latest sports owner to throw his money onto a pile and watch it burn.

“I like to win,” Hicks said.

Good luck, Tommy Boy. Here is how many championship rings Rodriguez brought the Seattle Mariners in six years: zero. So you can stop with any Michael Jordan comparisons. Jordan was the only sure thing in sports. You paid him, he won you a title.

Rodriguez has never done it, and he won’t do it by himself. Baseball is not basketball. As proof, here are a few facts for Mr. Hicks:

In December 1998 the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Kevin Brown a contract that broke the $15 million-a-year barrier. They didn’t make the playoffs the past two seasons.

Two years earlier, Albert Belle got a contract from the White Sox that broke the $10 million-a-year mark. The Sox are still waiting for a World Series title.

Meanwhile, the arrogance shown by these people is almost laughable.

“Alex likes golf, and he’s going to like the course we picked out for him,” pitcher Kenny Rogers said of the country club that he and other Rangers selected for their new buddy.

Give me a break. Like the poor Joe who shucks a week’s paycheck to take his kids to a game gives a hoot about where Rodriguez hits his tee shots.

A hypocrite and a fool

“Alex is the only player is baseball that deserves this kind of contract,” Hicks said.

This is the same man who sat on a baseball committee and decried the wanton spending by owners. (He must mean owners other than himself.)

Hicks is not only a hypocrite, he is wrong. Nobody deserves Rodriguez’s contract. But then dot-com millionaires don’t deserve piles of money for companies that quickly sink into oblivion. And movie stars don’t deserve $25 million to make bad films.

The difference is, movies still cost less than $10 a ticket. And investors in dot-coms should know the risks.

Baseball, meanwhile, depends on a hometown. It needs loyalty from repeat customers to fill 81 games a year.

Here is how baseball is repaying those loyal customers: by hiking ticket and food prices to a night at the opera. At Yankee Stadium — which houses the richest payroll in baseball — a field level box seat has gone from $25 to $65 in four years.

Get set for the same treatment, Texas.

The Rangers have never won a playoff series. Yet on Tuesday, Rodriguez said,
“They are so committed to winning.” When athletes today say a team is committed to winning, they mean, “I got paid.”

But only a few teams can afford that, mostly ones like Texas, which have extra revenue coming in from private cable TV deals.

Which is why you can bank on baseball’s going kapooowee next fall, at the end of the current labor deal. That’s when the sport will learn the price it pays for treating fans the way one of its teams treated Sarah, the elevator operator.

“Contracts like Rodriguez’s,” moaned Gerry Hunsicker, GM of the Houston Astros, “get us closer to the days when we all go out of business.”

And there won’t be a wet eye in the house.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign his books at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Little Book Shoppe On The Park, 380 S. Main, Plymouth.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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