To some, the purity of sport is worth a lot more than any Bonds contract

Bill Tanton

December 08, 1992|By Bill Tanton

We sat there, Byron Roberts and I, in the wintry chill at Homewood Field, watching some 60 of the Baltimore area's best high school football players but preoccupied with another aspect of sport.

We marveled at the pass-catching ability of Kenwood High's Joe Gray, the linebacking of Lake Clifton's Andrew Gray (no relation to Joe), the slick ball carrying of Southern's Chris Lewis, the versatility of Forest Park's Bilal Bahar.

This was Sunday at the 11th annual Greater Baltimore Football Classic in which the Maryland Scholastic Association all-stars beat the senior stars from Baltimore County, 26-21.

But like millions of fans around the country, we were talking about Barry Bonds and his $43 million almost-contract with the Giants and what it means.

"The owners are killing baseball," said Roberts.

You hear stuff like that a lot. You hear people say greed is killing the goose that laid the golden egg. And you've been hearing it for a long time.

Roberts spent a number of years as a sportswriter for The Washington Post covering major beats. He long ago tired of big-time pro sports.

He's a lot happier these days watching Johns Hopkins-Western Maryland football games and high school ball and things like the Greater Baltimore Classic. He's happier because those things represent what drew him into sports in the first place -- the competition, the purity of it.

"Why," he asked as he surveyed the slim crowd at the football game, "would all those thousands of people wait in line on a frigid December night to buy Orioles tickets when they could be here watching something that's fun?"

In Baltimore, the people must believe baseball is fun. The Orioles had 67 sellouts at Camden Yards last summer and drew a record 3,567,819.

But apparently it's not as much fun as it used to be in many big-league cities. More and more people are starting to feel like Byron Roberts.

Attendance shrank this year for 18 of the 26 franchises. I hate to think what the Pirates, who drew 1,829,395 this year, will draw next summer without Bonds and Doug Drabek.

The people purchasing the Giants will pay $100 million to owner Bob Lurie -- and nearly half that much over six years to one ballplayer.

Sure, that's crazy, but it's not Barry Bonds' fault. It's the fault of the new owners, led by Peter Magowan. Lurie showed what he thinks of the whole thing when he refused to put his name on the Bonds contract.

"We're not going to sign him," Lurie said. "If the new ownership wants to sign him, that's wonderful."

Throughout the game, other owners shudder at the prospect, raising the question of whether they'll approve the sale to Magowan's group.

Al Harazin knows what it is to incur the wrath of baseball ownership for overpaying. He did that last year when he signed free agent Bobby Bonilla to a then-record $29 million contract with the Mets.

"I took a lot of heat for paying Bonilla that much money," Harazin said at the retirement party for outgoing Mets general manager Frank Cashen in New York last month. "I did it because I thought it would bring us a pennant.

"In fact, everything I wanted to do last winter -- sign Bonilla, sign Eddie Murray, bring Bret Saberhagen to the Mets -- I was able to do. When Bonilla hit two home runs on Opening Day in St. Louis, I thought we were on our way."

They weren't. By midseason, Bonilla was wearing ear plugs so he couldn't hear the boos, and the Mets, with a $44 million payroll, finished next to last in the National League East.

"It just proves," said Harazin, "that you never know in this business."

Still, ballclubs keep trying to buy pennants, as the Giants are now. As proof that it's possible they need only look to this year's world champions, the Blue Jays, who had a $49 million payroll.

With 18 clubs losing money already, with fan interest dropping and the next TV contract expected to do the same, it's hard to believe a club would pay one player $43 million.

Rumors have been circulating that Boogie Weinglass is talking with Eli Jacobs about buying the Orioles. It made sense.

Before he entered the derby to gain an NFL franchise for his native Baltimore, Weinglass tried to buy the Orioles. Jacobs wouldn't accept his phone calls, so Boogie decided to shoot for football.

Yesterday, with Boogie and his wife traveling in the West, I talked with Weinglass' Merry-Go-Round headquarters about that and was assured Boogie "has no interest whatsoever" in buying the Orioles, largely because it could jeopardize his efforts to get the NFL team.

I'm sorry Jacobs didn't take Boogie's calls in the first place. Boogie could own the club by now, if, indeed, Jacobs is selling it.

But if Byron Roberts is right -- if the owners are killing baseball -- I wouldn't want a nice guy like Boogie Weinglass to be an accessory to the crime.

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