Owners send game down the tube

JOHN EISENBERG

March 05, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, Fla. -- So it turns out that the commissioner of baseball is television.

Commissioner Boob Tube.

It is no longer responsible just for annoying little pieces of foolishness such as World Series games ending in the middle of the night. Now, it is running the sport, changing the sport's essential fabric, making the kind of fundamental changes only a commissioner should make.

Never make, actually.

Yes, the 28 owners were the ones who gave preliminary approval yesterday to ending a century of tradition with wild-card playoffs and interleague play, perhaps as soon as 1995. But television was at the heart of their decision.

The owners were worried that steadily declining ratings would mean a significantly smaller national television contract, so they approved these terrible ideas hoping that the networks will up the payout.

Make sure you get that right. Because some of the country's deepest pockets are worried about keeping their fortunes stacked as high as ever, baseball will demolish several bedrock customs of sport and succumb to the institutionalized mediocrity known as wild-card playoffs.

It never would have happened had the owners not sacked Fay Vincent as commissioner last summer and taken over the game themselves. Vincent was a decent and sensible man who would have understood that it was a terrible mistake to tamper with the game's nervous system.

Vincent is gone, though, and the owners are running wild. Their ** gall knows no limits. Their thickheadedness is astonishing.

They're blaming the game, see. They're saying that the game's simple, elegant lines aren't enough anymore. Can't sustain a following. What a crock.

The owners, not the game, are the ones primarily responsible for declining ratings and attendance.

The owners are the ones sustaining the game's absurd salary structure, which has discouraged and alienated fans by eliminating roster continuity and any semblance of a link to the ballplayers.

The owners are the ones whose franchises have remained in the dark ages of marketing, which pro basketball has used in relentlessly upbeat fashion to leapfrog past baseball in popularity.

The owners are the ones who have offended millions of African-Americans with louts such as Marge Schott and shabby minority hiring practices.

Those are the problems the owners should be confronting. The game itself isn't the problem.

Did the game kill the interest that existed for years in Yankee Stadium? Of course not. George Steinbrenner ran the Yankees into the ground, and the fans gave up and stayed away. They're not stupid. You can't fool 'em. Yet when Steinbrenner returned last week, the owners crowed about it being "good for the game." Good because he is a circus. Because he stirs interest. Because they think the game isn't enough.

It just shows how little they comprehend. George Steinbrenner is their idea of marketing. Wow. They just don't have a clue, do they? The fans will come back to Yankee Stadium when the team starts winning again, regardless of who owns the team. They'll come back gladly then. The game will be enough of a draw.

Oh, but these owners are so convinced they're right. So certain that the game is sick. They took some obscure poll of 12,000 season-ticket holders and reached the conclusion that the game needed a radical face-lift. One little poll, and say goodbye to a century of tradition. Call it commissionering by focus group. Beautiful.

How about showing a little foresight? How about doing a little independent thinking? Do the owners think those fans will still be excited about the wild-card playoffs they suggested when the 79-83 Brewers are playing the 81-81 Rangers? Will anyone care? Watch?

And interleague play. The owners say they'll base it on regional rivalries. So the Phillies will be coming to Camden Yards. Terrific. Another chance to see Juan Bell.

Sorry to break the news to the owners, but no trumped-up regional rivalry will ever come close to surpassing the long-standing ones that exist. Maybe Mets-Yankees, but that's it.

It's indecent, really, that the owners should have the power to facilitate such changes. Baseball's specialness lies in the inherent mystery of its distinct and separate leagues, in its postseason that allows only winners inside, in its timelessness. Now, just because these owners don't get it, those concepts are going to be invalidated? All for the sake of a pathetic, desperate offering to the television god? Why, there oughta be a law.

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