There seems to be no end lately to the number of weepy newspaper and magazine pieces dissecting the supposed ills of baseball.
You want to fix baseball? With all due respect for the baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life eggheads and the Poets of the Press Box, here are a few suggestions:
* Let's tighten up spring training. It's too damn long. Six weeks was fine when ballplayers were named Ruth and Gehrig and spent the off-season slumped over bar stools and camped at buffet tables and ballooning to the size of the Hindenburg. Today's Nautilus-whipped, cardiovascularly correct players need three weeks, tops, to get ready.
And this would spare the fans back home all those dreary training camp interviews, during which a player routinely declares:
a. I'm in the best shape of my life.
b. Last year's .215 batting average was a fluke.
c. The cocaine possession charges are behind me now.
* Repeat after me: Team stability equals fan loyalty. Players go through teams these days the way the rest of us go through underwear. You can't watch the 11 o'clock sports during the off-season without seeing a clip of some teary-eyed slugger at a news conference, holding up a jersey and proclaiming: "It's been my lifelong dream to play for the Atlanta Braves."
Yeah, right. And I bet for another $3.2 million a year, it'd be your lifelong dream to play for the Taiyo Whales in Japan.
When ex-Oriole and current Ranger Billy Ripken introduced himself to teammate Jose Canseco in spring training, the Texas right fielder replied: "What are you doing here?"
Granted, Canseco might not strike you as Mr. Current Events. Or he might simply have stepped in the way of a few too many lamps hurled by Fatal Attractionesque ex-wife Esther. Still, if the players don't even know who's on their teams, imagine how confusing it is to the fans.
* Lower the prices. I read somewhere that it costs over $100 for a family of four to attend a game, counting tickets, parking, $6 beers for mom and dad, $27 batting helmets for the kids, etc. Memo to Joe Sixpack: might be time to pull out the floor plans for that bank job.
If prices keep escalating, ballparks will be filled with nothing but somber, corporate guys in $1,200 Armani suits who keep nudging each other in their luxury skyboxes and saying: "Which one's Cal Ripken again?"
* Speaking of luxury skyboxes, I watched a game from one at Camden Yards last year. It had wall-to-wall carpeting, two TVs, a VCR, a refrigerator and a fully stocked wet bar. Of course, it was a little hard to concentrate with everyone tapping me on the shoulder and saying: "Waiter, we need more shrimp . . ."
* Get rid of the mascots. This is a true story: I'm at the stadium last week, Orioles against the Angels. O's have a runner on second. There's a drive to left, here comes the runner around third, here's the play at the plate and he's . . . well, I don't know what he is.
Because some second-year drama student from Towson State or wherever is prancing around in an Oriole Bird costume and blocking my view! I wanted to pull his furry head off and throw it over the railing.
And don't tell me you can't get rid of these dopey mascots like the Bird or the Philly Phanatic because the kids love them. Buy the little dears some $4 cotton candy, you won't hear another word about the stupid Bird.
* Pick up the pace. The problem isn't that the games are too long. The problem is there's too much dead time. Too many conferences at the mound. Too many pitching changes. Too much gold-chain adjusting, wristband re-configuring and genital-realignment by the batters. Too much sweat-wiping, resin bag-clutching and Zen-like focusing by the pitchers.
Too many commercials between innings. Somebody do something.
* Here's one a lot of people won't like: Stop serving alcohol at the ballpark. Yeah, including beer.
Look, I like a cold beer at the ballgame as much as the next !! person. But for too many people, the game has become a nine-inning Happy Hour, minus the Buffalo wings. Friday nights at the ballpark might as well be Dysfunctional Night, with each fan receiving a coupon good for half off his or her next stay in detox.
If you still hold to the quaint notion, as I do, that baseball should be fun for the whole family, then the idea of hundreds of buzzed-out young people doing a glassy-eyed, Night-of-the-Living-Dead shuffle through the stands is unsettling.
Especially when they tap me on the shoulder and ask: "Which one's Cal Ripken again?"