Fan cries foul over the business of baseball

August 12, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

GET YOUR red hots here! Get your peanuts! Cold beee-er! So-dee pop! Get your bottled infield dirt! Your Orioles cookies! Your commemorative Memorial Stadium coins, posters, T-shirts and kitchen utensils!

As the Orioles stumble through this Season to Forget, let's remember this:

Baseball is big business.

Purist followers of the national pastime have trouble swallowing that verity. They don't buy it even as they shell out serious bucks to park their cars, purchase hot dogs and souvenirs, and -- oh yeah -- watch a game at the ballpark.

The purists will tell you baseball didn't always emit such a powerful smell of hucksterism. Like when Babe Ruth was still an Oriole and the players wore flapjack gloves.

Sorry, sports fans. That was then. This is now. Baseball nowadays, at least on the professional level, is as much about turning a profit as it is about turning a double play. While pro ball might once have been perceivable as "just a game," let there be no doubt that it has become part of the contemporary, Godzilla-sized "entertainment industry."

Which explains why you so often hear sports officials say things like, "A ticket to see Sinatra goes for $50, so why shouldn't we get top dollar?"

A good point perhaps, except Sinatra doesn't sing at the same venue before 25,000 people 81 times a year.

You can understand why some baseball fans are bummed. Many of them were kids when they fell in love with the game in its most unadulterated form, on rough sandlots and Little League diamonds. But as adults in the high-priced Jose Canseco era, they seem to find it galling that baseball is bottled, advertised and sold like so much . . . bottled dirt. Overpriced bottled dirt at that.

Oriole fans have their own pet gripes (yesterday's no-hitter notwithstanding). These include:

* A new (some say unnecessary) stadium demanded (some say extorted) by the team but paid for by state money.

* A seemingly chintzy front office that has put mediocre or just plain bad teams on the field for the past several years, acquiring other teams' castoffs while letting better, more expensive opportunities pass. (At least if Jack Luskin buys the team, the O's would have an owner who has publicly confessed to being the cheapest guy in town.)

* A radio flagship station that, not a little obnoxiously, refers to Oriole action as "the only game in town."

As I understand it from conversations, radio call-in shows, readings and other unscientific evidence -- not to mention my own two cents' worth as a native Baltimorean and a lifelong fan of baseball and the Birds -- a common sentiment is that the marketing of the O's often steps beyond smart promotion and into tacky buck-grabbing. According to the gripers, the observance of Memorial Stadium's final year has taken on the air of a Moroccan bazaar, as if the S in Stadium should read $.

Let's face it, though. The Orioles and other clubs will continue the hard sell so long as people keep flocking to the ballparks in record numbers. The 26 big-league teams draw a total of about 50 million fans a year. Even minor league clubs are experiencing unprecedented gate figures. In this, their final season at the $tadium, the Orioles should attract some 2.5 million fans, to see a team with one of the two or three worst records in the majors.

This local enthusiasm is sometimes attributed to the paranoia that followed the Colts' departure in 1984. In the wake of that sleazy event, Baltimoreans looked fretfully at their remaining big-league team, the O's, and broke into a collective chorus of, "Oh no, you can't take that away from me." And so civic responsibility became one more reason to root on those O's.

But what about other towns where attendance is booming? The JTC likely explanation for the growing crowds is that baseball and most other sports, by entering the realm of show biz, have become appealing to more than the die-hard fans.

The die-hards will always be out at the games. But they have been joined by people of all ages and interest levels. These people come out to enjoy the hub and the bub -- the mascots, the music, the animated scoreboards, the fireworks, the concessions smorgasbord, the souvenirs, the Wave, the giveaways, the dancing ball girls -- that now revolve noisily around nine innings of baseball.

Ask the die-hards and they'll say they don't care for all that company and all those distractions. But it's too late. Sports is show biz now, and that won't change. You might as well try

plugging the hole in the ozone layer.

For the purists, this is a hard lesson to learn. But they can do more than sigh, throw up their hands and shell out another $8.50 for an "upper box seat." They can take heart that this Season to Forget offers something positive to remember. To quote from "Damn Yankees," "We gotta think about the game."

If you can hack your way through all the schlock, all the noise, all the commemorative posters and all the bottled dirt, you can find the strong heartbeat of a wonderful game, being played by guys who are the best in their field. You might even overlook that many of those guys are arrogant zillionaires, and that their salaries require the clubs to build new stadiums with pricey sky boxes and peddle a lot of schlock, a lot of noise, a lot of posters and a whole lot of bottled dirt.

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