Diamonds to Dust

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

Professional sports provides average folks with one of the few opportunities they ever have to scrutinize the public behavior and business acumen of some of the richest individuals on the planet--team owners. The Vikings' comedy of errors aside, the study of the people who literally own the game offers what might be the best and most puzzling available evidence that there must exist at the very highest levels of international business some wild and wholly random corporate lottery that makes fat cats and leisure barons of such an apparently unsteady and profligate bunch. How else to explain the completely irrational and irresponsible behavior of so many major-league owners? How else to explain the Beanie Baby giveaways, coming soon to a stadium near you?

Since baseball's owners flushed Fay Vincent from the commissioner's office and replaced him in 1993 (supposedly on an interim basis) with Milwaukee Brewers owner Alan "Bud" Selig, baseball has inflicted on its fans a procession of indignities that reached its low point with the 1994 strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. Yet for all the supposed positive steps that the game has since taken to reclaim its fans--interleague play, the addition of a wild-card round of playoffs, expansion, and a new stadium bonanza across the country--the institution has never been on more precarious ground. Lost in all the squawking about the financial inequality that is eroding the game is the fact that a growing number of the presently floundering franchises are among the more tradition-rich in all of modern baseball. Consider Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Oakland, Kansas City, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Detroit: Every one of those teams has won a world championship in the last 20 years, and over that period these clubs (with 21 postseason appearances among them) have generally outperformed the large-market teams from the coasts. Throw in San Diego, Houston, and Milwaukee (with seven appearances), and the ability of the alleged small-market teams to compete on a relatively level playing field is even more firmly established.

People in and around the major leagues have been grousing about baseball's financial inequalities since long before the advent of free agency. Wayne Huizenga's recent dismantling of the World Champion Florida Marlins is appalling, but even fans with relatively short memories should recall Charlie Finley's similar 1976 fire sale involving his great Oakland team, or, closer to home, Calvin Griffith's wholesale liquidation of the Twins a couple years later. The Montreal Expos' inability to retain any of the fine young players its system seems to produce year in and year out should also certainly resonate with Twins fans who were around in the painful last years of the Griffith regime in Minnesota.

Still, two decades removed from the constant threat that free agency would allow deep-pocket teams like the Yankees to buy a pennant, there is no denying that baseball has now reached a point where the sheer financial craziness of the game has made it virtually impossible for some teams to compete. And lost in all the yawping about money and market disparities and stadium fever is the fact that baseball's current batch of owners doesn't appear to have any clue--or are simply unable to come to any agreement--about what is really important or how much is at stake. One of the great ironies in the current malaise is that, while baseball teams are now primarily owned by guys who made their millions in business, the marketing of the game has never been more sloppy or indifferent. There are precious few remaining owners who grasp that the key to long-term franchise stability is building, cultivating, and selling a baseball tradition; winning--even just a little taste--is often only the first step in that process.

That's what is so incomprehensible about Huizenga's desperate measures in Florida. His mistake wasn't in spending insanely to build a world champion: As crazy as that improbable, high-stakes gamble was, the real blunder was in failing to keep that team together, to reap the benefits in 1998, on the field, as an organization, but especially at the turnstiles. History shows that attendance soars following a championship (after their 1987 championship, the Twins in 1988 established a then major-league single-season attendance record by drawing more than 3 million fans). One of the problems facing baseball is that the teams that have come into the major leagues in the last two expansion waves--teams like the Marlins--have brought with them deep pockets and the impatience that usually accompanies them. By spending wildly and irresponsibly in an attempt to avoid the once-expected growing pains and pitfalls of an expansion franchise, they have also taken a tragic shortcut around the tradition-building process.

This is simply bad business practice. The often comic trials and errors of expansion teams have traditionally been the way they endear themselves to local fans and cultivate a loyal following; by overspending on everything from players to managers to stadiums, the new franchises have created a situation where anything short of instant success is a faddish disappointment. This buy-now philosophy squanders the goodwill of the fans and merely postpones the inevitable growing pains to a later, more unfortunate date. By basing attendance almost entirely on either winning or novelty (from outfield swimming pools to concourse sideshows), baseball is creating a situation where in five years most of the currently thriving teams will once again be playing to sparse crowds, beautiful new stadiums be damned.

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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