Gentlemen, Unsheath Your Bats!

Baseball: More like it used to be than ever before

There were numerous holes in the media coverage of baseball's latest trip to the edge of the abyss. First and most obvious, this reporter could not help noticing that the cabal of wealthy white men who control the game today is the most flaccid and undersexed bunch of fellows this side of a VW microbus full of UFO zealots. You think Bud Selig's getting any? I don't like his chances.

Never mind Rafael Palmeiro; if you want an explanation for the sudden and rather bizarre proliferation of Viagra signage at big-league parks this season, the real answer lies in baseball's boardrooms. The likeliest source of the age-old antagonism between owners and players is, to me, anyway, the most apparent--sexual frustration and envy, plain and simple. How could baseball's owners fail to begrudge the players their youth, virility, and functioning prostates? Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt, as Harvey Mackay put it--especially if he looks as bloated and ghastly as Jerry Reinsdorf.

His hopes of crushing the union dashed, his erections but a dim memory, Bud Selig gets on with the business of baseball
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
His hopes of crushing the union dashed, his erections but a dim memory, Bud Selig gets on with the business of baseball

Old white businessmen have never been a terribly sympathetic lot, I'll grant you that, but these days baseball's barons are guilty of an even greater crime. They're boring. The game's characters are all gone, chased away by indigence, perceived indiscretions, festering resentments, and petty jealousy.

Who could forget poor, beleaguered Marge Schott, a woman with the animal sexuality of Fifties screen siren Marjorie Main and a figure of such legendary proportions in her native Ohio that some Boy Scouts named a lake after her? Schott was forced to sell the Reds (for $69 million) in 1999; clearly the other owners felt threatened by a powerful, charismatic woman given to the occasional off-handed defense of Adolf Hitler, so they got rid of her.

Before Schott there was Minnesota's own pariah and prophet Calvin Griffith, a confused colossus who was big enough to wear his bigotry and his parsimony on his sleeve.

Now there is just a mob of interchangeable goofs distinguishable only by their varying levels of commitment to artificial tanning. Seriously, have you ever heard a single compelling detail about any of these fellows?

The other point driven home by baseball's near-meltdown was the galling lack of institutional memory in this country. The business of baseball has been a train wreck forever. How much evidence do you need? How many work stoppages, court battles, contract squabbles, and outlaw leagues?

The truth is that the saga of professional baseball has been remarkably stable. Too stable--the richest teams have always dominated, with the exception of the couple of decades that followed the start of free agency in the 1970s. And now we're headed back that way again. Nothing new in this. Fans, likewise, have groused about money ruining the game for generations. In Ernest Hemingway's 1925 short story "The Three-Day Blow," Nick Adams's pal Bill complains that the Cardinals don't have a prayer against the Giants "as long as [Giants manager John] McGraw can buy every good ball player in the league...."

"He can't buy them all," Nick says.

"He buys all the ones he wants," Bill counters.

Sound familiar?

The first major attempt at the formation of a players' union, John Montgomery Ward's National Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in 1885, was dead by 1891. But not, according to baseball historian Lee Allen, before it "resulted in the impoverishment of several club owners, caused the death of the American Association, forced a decline in attendance, and almost wrecked the National League."

From 1953 through 1971, teams relocated with frightening regularity, Milwaukee (big surprise) representing the epicenter of baseball's instability; in the 1950s the Dodgers and Giants--citing poor attendance and inadequate stadiums--fled New York for California; the Boston Braves relocated to Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns were packed off to Baltimore, and the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City. The 1960s saw Griffith relocating to Minnesota, the Braves leaving Milwaukee for Atlanta, and the A's shifting again from Kansas City to Oakland.

The Major League expansion in the late Sixties was no more successful than its most recent round; after one disastrous year in Seattle, the Pilots were grabbed out of receivership by Bud Selig and moved to Milwaukee, and the ill-fated Washington Senators left the capital for Texas after the 1971 season.

You can bitch all you want about the current players' union, but since Marvin Miller took the reins in 1966, his formidable organization has wiped out the reserve clause, established free agency, and contributed to franchise stability and the unprecedented economic growth of the game. You can thank the players' union for the fact that no team has moved or folded in 30 years, and that nobody who has ever sold a baseball team has failed to walk away with a handsome profit. Just ask George W. Bush, who turned a $600,000 investment in the Texas Rangers into a $15 million payday when he left Major League Baseball to play in his father's fantasy league.

The latest deal is as dubious as all the other deals that went before it. It didn't establish a minimum payroll; it erased the compensation draft picks for teams that lose high-profile free agents; and it failed to require that revenue sharing be plowed back into player salaries. Thankfully, however, it does ensure that baseball's dwindling core of fans will be able to continue to watch and appreciate a game teeming with wondrous, extravagantly paid athletes.

 
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