The Twilight of Baseball

GEORGE F. WILL

March 11, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

BRADENTON, FLORIDA — Bradenton, Florida. -- Andy Van Slyke, baseball's best centerfielder, has just played six innings of the Pittsburgh Pirates' first spring training game, and has run wind sprints along the outfield fence as the game meandered to the ninth inning, and now, in the clubhouse, he has an ice pack lashed to his aching back and another taped to his throbbing knee, and he is doing push-ups, fast. But they do not slow the flow of his State of the Game address.

His three degenerative spinal discs have been partly produced by playing on the plastic-covered concrete of Pittsburgh's hideous Three Rivers Stadium, which he considers one of the architectural contributions to the alienation of fans. On the way to some games last season he stopped at a hospital and was put into traction for 20 minutes. Yet he missed only two games. This professional has standing to speak about the game's standards.

Baseball is, he thinks, like his back: hurting. Owners and players are so focused on maximizing the gusher of money being generated by the game, and their shares of the gusher, that no one is thinking of nurturing the next generation of fans.

In 1992 attendance declined at 18 of 26 parks, and the demographics of baseball's audience are ominous: The most loyal fans are elderly, and youngsters just want to be like Mike -- Michael Jordan. Yet rather than sacrifice some revenues by playing some World Series games during the day, when tomorrow's ticket-buyers are not asleep, the games start late and often end after midnight.

Does baseball have money problems? Yes, but odd ones. In 1976, at the dawn of free agency for players, the average salary was $51,501. Last year, it was more than $1 million. This year, the Giants' Barry Bonds will make about $45,000 a game. But franchise values also have soared. The value of the Baltimore Orioles franchise has increased about tenfold in the 14 years since it was sold for $13 million.

There is lots of money in baseball but the uneven distribution of it is not conducive to the game's health. Last year six teams had payrolls larger than the gross revenues of six teams in small markets.

Still, on the false assumption that baseball's health necessarily improves as the quantity of money generated grows, plans are afoot for radical changes that may generate more money by manufacturing more September excitement. Excitement, that is, for fans not excited by what has always excited real baseball fans.

In addition to limited inter-league play, both leagues would be split into three, instead of today's two, divisions. There would be an extra layer of playoffs, involving eight teams -- the six division winners and the two with the best second-place records in each league.

So eight of today's 28 teams would get into post-season play. That is not as ludicrous as the NFL (12 of 28) or the NBA (16 of 27) or the NHL (16 of 24). Nevertheless, it is a format foreign to baseball's essential tradition, the stern ethic that second place doesn't mean a damned thing.

All this would damage irreparably the rhythm of pennant races. They should be long gatherings of summer heat, punctuated by a single clap of October thunder: the World Series.

Mr. Van Slyke, who knows and cherishes baseball's traditions, plays surrounded by tunnel-vision athletes who are, he says, so ''self-absorbed'' that all they know of Hank Aaron is that he could hit, long ago. They think Cy Young is the name of an award, not a pitcher. But so worried is Mr. Van Slyke about baseball's wavering audience, he favors the contemplated changes.

And yet, and yet. The pleasure of being a baseball fan is bound up with knowledge not only of the game's nuances but also its history. Baseball's hold on America depends on the fans' immersion in the long stream of the game's traditions, one of which is the stately and mesmerizing crescendo of the long season. The cords of affection that bind serious fans to the traditional game cannot be cut and then rewoven. And those cords depend on baseball's continuities.

In the first half of this century there was in baseball only one radical disjunction. It occurred around 1920, when the lively ball replaced the dead ball. Then during the 1950s change erupted. In a span of six years, five of the 16 franchises relocated. In 1969 the two leagues were split into two divisions. In 1973 the American league quit playing baseball, as defined by the rule book, the first words of which are: ''Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each.'' The designated hitter is a 10th player.

Baseball had better think hard before it sheds still more traditions, and more fans.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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