For sale by owners: baseball traditions

JOHN EISENBERG

November 11, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

A warm July night in 1995. A full house at Camden Yards. A big night at the yard. Maybe the biggest. Cal Ripken is surpassing Lou Gehrig's streak tonight. Mike Mussina takes the mound, warms up and throws the first pitch . . .

. . . to Deion Sanders. Of the Atlanta Braves. Of the National League.

Huh?

You can't laugh it off, not anymore. Not with baseball's owners making noise about changing the structure of the game as it has existed for a century.

Interleague play. Wild-card playoffs. A retooling of divisions and alignments.

All horrible ideas. Every one of them. The worst since 8-tracks. Even worse.

That they might become real is still a long shot. But the news is there has been a subtle change in the tone of the debate. Even mentioning such ideas used to be heresy. Not anymore.

These days, new-money owners such as Jerry Reinsdorf will gladly bring it up. Phillies president Bill Giles recently sent a questionnaire to season-ticket holders asking which ideas they liked. (Amazingly, 70 percent were interested in interleague play. But they watched the Phillies all summer, so you can excuse their delusion.)

What has occurred -- and maybe the owners intended this -- is that the ideas have gained legitimacy as points of discussion. If the owners are talking about them, they're not wacko ideas anymore. Something like that.

Anyway, it's the first step. And understand: They may be the kinds of changes you think will never happen, but when these owners start talking about money, you can't hedge any bets.

The reason it is happening now is the owners are worried about declining TV ratings translating into declining TV revenue. They're very serious about finding ways to keep from losing that money.

The last contract was for $1.1 billion, and the talk is the next one will be much smaller with baseball not faring so well on TV. But if the owners were to throw a new round of playoffs into the mix, or the spectacle of interleague play, maybe the networks would bite.

The networks, of course, will bite on anything for better ratings. They don't care much about baseball's sacred book of ritual. As one CBS executive said during the World Series: "Baseball needs to be brought into this century." Please.

Television is the one that needs to be brought up to date on the business of broadcasting baseball. With weeknight overexposure on ESPN, virtually no "Game of the Week" on CBS and World Series games decided after midnight, baseball's TV arrangement is a disaster.

But see, it's smart business for network execs to criticize baseball. The owners start thinking their TV money is in trouble, and start talking about more playoffs -- which, you will notice, would give the networks more bang for their buck.

The joke, of course, is the owners are crying about any loss of revenue. According to Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who wrote "Baseball And Billions," average team revenues have risen from $5.7 million in 1970 to $58 million in 1991.

And as for all this hand-wringing about high player salaries, Zimbalist points out that salaries were equal to 31.6 percent of team revenues in 1989, down from 40.3 percent five years earlier.

With those facts as the backdrop, it would be a shame if the owners started throwing knee-jerk solutions at problems perceived mostly by network executives.

What is special about baseball's postseason is that, unlike in every other pro sport, the teams have to win a division to get there. It's a tough concept to grasp, but they actually have to earn it.

Wild-card playoffs would keep more teams in races into September, but making the playoffs wouldn't mean as much.

What is special about the World Series is the teams have never played each other. Interleague play would rob the Series of the mystery at the core of its appeal. Besides, I think I'd ask for a refund if the Marlins showed up on my 13-game package.

Terrible ideas. All of them.

See, baseball is different than pro football, which can tinker with wild cards and instant replay because it is a newer game and not so bound by tradition. Baseball has barely changed in a century. That's what is beautiful about it. Ruth's game is essentially Canseco's.

Wild cards and Orioles-Marlins games would come real close to ruining it. Babe Ruth never hit a home run in a wild-card game, and thank goodness. Not that the owners care one whit about tradition if it means more money for them. (See: Vincent, Fay, sacked.) To paraphrase Al Haig, they're in charge now.

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