Saturday, July 28, 2001

Conspiracy Theory by Bob Mason

In this era of trendy paranoia where everyone sees conspiracy in even the most innocuous events, a sinister cover-up is taking place right in plain view of an unsuspecting populace. It's a scheme so clever and subtle that it has somehow escaped the notice of the vigilant press and our ever alert elected officials; a plot so labyrinth and diabolical that even Oliver Stone would dismiss it as ridiculous. What, you ask, is this evil manipulation? Is it the theft of the White House by the oil, mining and logging companies? Could it be the systematic destruction of American health by insurance companies? Perhaps the continuing success of "Ally McBeal?"

No, but this scheme is just as heinous and destructive to the American psyche as any of those. It's the conspiracy between the owners and players to ruin Major League Baseball.

To all those scoffers and naysayers out there, consider this: does your allegiance to Major League Baseball stem from a pure enjoyment of the game as it's played and presented today, or does it rise more from blind name-brand allegiance and a sense of nostalgia the game generates for the simplicity and innocence of your youth?

Doubtless, there have been many exciting and noteworthy events in Major League Baseball over the past decade. The Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run chase. Cal Ripken, Jr. passing Lou Gehrig and becoming the all-time iron man. The pitching artistry of Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux. The beauty of Tony Gwynn's swing. The fielding ballet of Omar Vizquel and         Roberto Alomar, Jr. All stand as testament to the entertainment and excitement of which baseball is capable. Unfortunately, each of these feats is dulled and even overwhelmed by the mismanagement, blind greed and just plain stupidity that turns what should be a pleasant, relaxing diversion into a ponderous, expensive and unattractive entertainment option.

To be fair to the players, the owners have always treated them like chess pieces to be moved around at their whims. Trading them to teams in other cities without their consent, firing them without warning, not allowing them to seek employment elsewhere in the league, and not providing any sort of retirement benefits are just some of the ways the owners have deservedly earned the enmity of the players. Only in the past 30 years have the players acquired the power (because of their union) to increase their rights and strengthen their bargaining position in the battles with the owners.

That being said, the players are doing all they can to destroy the public's natural goodwill toward them by their willingness to squeeze the last penny out of teams competing for their services. Popular players leave cities that have supported and idolized them for years over what amounts to the difference between a ton of money and a little more than a ton of money.

This past off-season alone gave us Gary Sheffield berating management and his teammates because he felt the Dodgers were not showing him enough  “respect." With apologies to Aretha Franklin, Mr. Sheffield spelled the word M-O-N-E-Y. This from a player earning $10 million plus per season despite his up and down career, his inability to field a position and his admitted lack of effort on numerous occasions.

Not to be outdone, Frank Thomas killed the enthusiasm surrounding the White Sox upcoming season long before their on-the-field collapse by not showing up to Spring Training because some players were earning $18 - $25 million while he had to try and feed his family on $10 million per season. He hinted that he wouldn't honor the long-term contract he had signed unless the financial terms were renegotiated. Public sentiment quickly turned on him, and to save face he gave the explanation (with a straight face) that he did not want to renegotiate his contract, he simply wanted more money. With airtight logic like that, Mr. Thomas could have a future in the Bush Administration.

These and numerous other incidents (Ricky Henderson playing cards in the clubhouse during the Mets' playoff series with the Braves, Roberto Alomar, Jr. spitting on an umpire, and anything Albert Belle ever did while the game was not actually being played) have colored many fans' perception of players as spoiled prima donnas who don't care about winning, when all they have to do to earn unwavering adulation is to stop acting like petulant children.

Players should also realize that they will only get their exorbitant salaries as long as the fan base is there to attend the games and pay for them. By showing no concern for anything but their own short-term financial gain by jumping ship and heading to the large market teams that pay top dollar, the players are undercutting the competitive balance, which will eventually lead to fewer ticket sales and therefore, lower salaries. Somehow the Players' Union thinks it's a smart move to encourage this behavior by publicly criticizing a player when he takes less than he could get elsewhere to stay with a team and city where he wants to play (i.e., Mark McGwire). They should pay a little more attention to the fans in Kansas City, Tampa and Minnesota, who will attest that no one wants to pay their money to see a perennial loser play.

Which brings the faults of the owners into sharp focus. Recently, it has been in vogue to express desire for contraction of the league, jettisoning a few teams that aren't making money for the financial stability of the whole. Many owners are now giving lip service to this idea as if they had nothing to do with the current state of the teams operating in the red.

They seem to forget that it is their fault in the first place that these teams are struggling. There are too many teams for Major League Baseball to support? Maybe the owners should have considered that fact when they were shaking down Denver, Miami Phoenix and Tampa for the gigantic expansion fees those new teams' owners had to pay to get a franchise. Instead of expanding so that they could get a lump-sum windfall, the owners should have considered ways to strengthen and increase their existing teams' fan bases for the near future. With small market teams already struggling, it was greed and complete disregard for the future of the game that caused the owners to authorize expansion. Not surprisingly, three of the four expansion teams are having medium to severe financial problems.

Unfortunately, the teams mentioned most often for contraction are Minnesota and Montreal. The Expos are an obvious candidate for relocation if not outright dissolution because they draw roughly the same size crowd as a street corner fender bender. Repeated attempts to finance a new stadium in Montreal have failed, leaving the owners little choice other than moving to the United States or folding up the tents. Did it ever occur to Major League Baseball that putting a team in a city with a culture that doesn't have the same subconscious identification with baseball might not be the best idea? Montreal was a better option at the time than Toronto or Denver?

Considering Minnesota as a candidate for contraction is ludicrous. The team has a strong history for baseball. Baseball fans everywhere know the names Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett. Besides the Yankees and their bottomless pockets, who are the teams with the most World Series championships in the last 20 years? The Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins with two apiece. The arguments that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area can't support the team don't make any sense since the first team to ever draw three million fans in a season was the Twins. Sure, they need a new stadium, but the owners of all the teams could easily take a small sum from their short-term profits and finance a new stadium for the Twins. Spending that money from their pockets instead of extorting the Minnesota community for funds to build the stadium would create a lot of goodwill toward baseball and let the Major Leagues keep a part of their history, which more than anything is what separates it from other sports.

To disband the Twins is an insult to their fans who have come to make them a part of their lives over the past 40 years. Much better, if franchises must go, to lose the teams in Florida, where they have met with indifference almost since day one.

The main reason teams like the Twins are losing money is that they can’t compete financially with the big spenders. If the owners had the foresight to institute a meaningful revenue sharing program to aid those teams in the smaller markets, contraction wouldn’t even be discussed. Baseball revenue is very healthy, but somehow the bulk of the wealth ends up in the pockets of a few teams because of geography. The owners should draw up a plan that distributes the revenue a little more fairly with the stipulation that the owners of the small market teams spend that money on improving the on-the-field product. The George Steinbrenners of the league have got to realize that unless they help out the small market teams, they will be unable to maintain operations at a competitive level. No one will come out to see even the mighty Yankees stand on the field by themselves if all the other teams are forced to fold.

The Commissioner’s office doesn’t escape blame for destroying baseball’s fan base. In this age where so many other more convenient and cheaper entertainment options are available to the public, Major League Baseball should be concentrating on making its current fans feel noticed while building the next generation of fans. But Bud Selig and his confederacy of dunces don’t even seem to take notice of the fans unless they aren’t getting every last dollar out of them.

Whether it’s charging fans to listen to games over the Internet or refusing to move up the start times of post season games, MLB is corroding the fan base that either doesn’t have the time or can’t afford to attend a game ($12 for bleacher seats x a family of four + parking and concessions = way too much). Selig always points to healthy attendance numbers at the ballpark while television ratings continue to sink. What he doesn’t seem to get is that the current generation of kids has no attachment or interest in the game since it has been made all but inaccessible to them. What kid can stay up until midnight to see the conclusion of a World Series game on a school night? How can they feel a connection to their team if their only exposure to them is the occasional game of the week?

Video games, movies and computers are always going to win a child’s and most adults’ attention unless Bud and friends figure out some way to make the game relevant to them, starting with the speeding up of games. Even lifelong fans grow bored and restless during a three-and-a-half-hour nine-inning game. Making the pitchers throw within a set time limit and forcing the batters to stay in the batter’s box throughout their entire at bat would be a good start.

But instead of aggressively addressing these problems the brilliant Selig brainstorms that further distance the public from baseball include Opening Day of the “national pastime” in foreign countries, making the All-Star Game winner the host league for the World Series, and an annual draft of players from good teams by bad teams. These ideas are so bad and so far off the mark that it almost seems as if he must be joking.

So Bud fiddles as Rome burns, the owners throw barbs at the players instead of cleaning up their own mess, and the players dash around the country on the rumor of a few extra pennies, while the game of baseball wobbles on unsteadily. It may not be a conspiracy in the true sense of the word, but together the actions of these men have brought the game we love to a turning point. Whether and how it survives remains to be seen.

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