Diamonds to Dust

Baseball owners are trading away the game's storied traditions for boxes of Beanie Babies

It's no coincidence that baseball's marquee franchises and signature ballparks are those with the longest and most respected traditions, and with a historically loyal relationship with their cities and their fans. Look at the Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Orioles: Fans go out to the ballpark regardless of the team's current fortunes, or misfortunes, as the case may be. People underestimate the role such tradition plays in a team's ability to generate and spend money and attract players, yet it is a tradition that still exists on a humbler scale in almost every major-league city. The Twins' 1987 championship was all the sweeter following a decade of infuriating bumbling in the front office and on the field. The fans who suffered through those years and paid for the privilege deserved that first world championship as much as anyone in the organization.

The danger now is that in some places that tradition may never really take hold beyond the bandwagon euphoria that accompanies an unexpected championship or a new stadium. If so, they are losing a priceless commodity. In tradition-rich cities, teams go back and forth from good to bad with surprising regularity, and there is something in that cycle that whets the fans' appetite for the weird and confounding nature of the game. But now the problems with baseball are beginning to undermine even that durable relationship. There's no doubt that the local franchise is in a waning cycle, but we've been there before. The really sad part of the game's current institutional malaise--Bud Selig's tired lip service to baseball tradition notwithstanding--is that it's increasingly likely that some teams, and maybe ours, won't get the chance to ride out the current cycle, and will become some other giddy city's faddish new attraction.

What makes all the current off-the-field distractions so infuriating is that on the field, despite what traditionalists would have you believe, baseball has never had a more compelling collection of gifted athletes and exciting prospects. The game currently is suffused with an unprecedented offensive explosion and masterful pitching, aging legends and young phenoms.

Consider that in 1930, when Hack Wilson of the Cubs hit 56 home runs and drove in a major-league record 190 runs (a record, incidentally, which is as threatened this year as Roger Maris's 61 homers), the National League batting average was .303 and the league earned run average was 4.97. Only two pitchers in the major leagues--one in each league--had ERAs under 3. In 1961, when Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record, there were only three pitchers with ERAs under 3. Yet last season, when the offensive exploits of hitters such as Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Larry Walker were all anyone could talk about, 13 major-league pitchers had earned run averages under 3, and there were four 20-game winners and a trio of others who won 19 games each. One would certainly think that this season--with Mark McGwire's astonishing home-run barrage, 20-year-old Cub phenom Kerry Wood's 20 strikeouts against Houston, and David Wells's perfect game against the Twins--baseball would hardly need to resort to Beanie Baby giveaways to draw fans to the ballpark. What's even more depressing than the promotions themselves, however, is that baseball's insidious cabal seems absolutely convinced that the Beanie gambit--which is going on at parks throughout the major leagues--is working.

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