Baseball changes in wrong places

JOHN EISENBERG

May 10, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The NBA was comatose 15 years ago. Arenas were empty. Championship games weren't even considered prime-time fodder by the TV networks. Who cared?

Fifteen years later, the NBA is the hottest, hippest thing in sports. It's a cultural icon. The stars' faces are everywhere. The games are fabulous events.

What happened? The people running the NBA learned how to sell their game. Sell the everlovin' air out of it. That's it. That's all that happened. The NBA's success is a story about selling.

It's not a story about the game. Pro basketball, the game, hasn't changed from the NBA's bad old days. The ball is the same size. The rim is the same height. The season is the same length.

It's the same game that was a dead product 15 years ago. The only thing different today is the sell.

If only the dunderhead baseball owners would wake up and realize that.

Their sport is struggling right now. You know the details. Attendance and TV ratings are down. Sponsors are seeking star players from other sports. The game simply isn't hot nationally.

So, what do the owners do? They don't blame themselves. They don't point the finger right where it belongs: at their inability to sell their graceful, wonderful game. No, they commit the classic, fundamental mistake that the NBA was smart enough not to make.

They blame the game.

That's what this is all about, of course. This new baseball TV contract including a second round of league playoffs, with realignment and interleague play sure to follow. It's the owners saying that the game is what's wrong. Saying that the game isn't exciting enough anymore, that it needs more playoff teams, more tricks, more watered-down possibilities.

What a crock.

If the game is what's wrong, how come you can't get a ticket in Baltimore or Toronto? How come fans in Texas and Cleveland are in a frenzy anticipating their new stadiums? How come the Colorado Rockies might draw 5 million fans this year? How come sales of Chicago White Sox gear -- and interest in the team -- have increased exponentially? How come the hot Phillies are packing 'em in?

The game isn't in trouble in those places, is it? You would think the owners would be smart enough to see it. To see that the game isn't the motor that drives popularity today, in any sport. The sell does. The sell and winning, of course.

But the owners simply don't get it. They're so clueless it's amazing. And because they're in charge now, with no one else possessing the authority to tell them they're wrong, they're going to change the very fabric of the game.

These wild-card playoffs look like harmless little creatures, but they aren't. They spell the end of the greatest baseball tradition of all: the pennant race. There will never be another, not when both teams qualify for the postseason.

Pennant races are baseball at its best, changing daily, slowly building, always in the air. But they're going the way of the streetcar, and it's a shame. Baseball without pennant races is baseball without a soul. Say hello to the new national pastime.

Starting next year, you won't even have to win your division to win the World Series. Mediocrity will suffice. Baseball was always the one sport that was different, that held out and kept the regular season meaningful, but now its postseason won't be much different from hockey's all-comers affair. Because it'll get worse, you watch. Pro playoff fields only move in one direction: bigger. The next time baseball needs to throw TV another carrot, it will add another round of playoffs.

Coming to a postseason near you one of these years: fourth-place teams.

Oh, sure, the game will survive. The game always survives. The owners' new partnership with the networks is an interesting, creative idea, although it's too early to tell how it will play out. But in any event, fans will continue to go and continue to care. The traditionalists (guilty, your honor) will get used to the brave new world. What's the alternative? You could tune out, but that's no good.

Hey, the plain fact is that it's the owners' baseball, and we have to play by their rules, idiotic or not.

The thing to hope for is that maybe the owners will stop complaining and somehow come to realize their error, that what they need to do is sell their game better, not fiddle with its traditions. If that were to happen, then maybe they'd stop before they wreck the game more than they already have.

It's not likely to happen, of course. These owners say they want to be like the NBA. But they don't do their homework.

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