Those nouveau riche guys

Russell Baker

July 19, 1993|By Russell Baker

MY Baltimore sisters who don't know beans about baseball came by the other night and right away started fuming about the players being scandalously overpaid. Their ire had been fomented, if I may lapse into crossword-puzzle talk, by the All-Star Game played the other night in my hometown.

Like everybody else who hates to see a ballplayer have a big payday, they started in on the shame of a society that pays a schoolteacher only $15 a week, or whatever the current shameful figure is, yet pays millions to Cal Ripken Jr.

They specifically cited Ripken, who plays for their hometown team, the Orioles, as an example of nearly utter worthlessness. Whether this was because he is having a terrible year with the bat seems doubtful, since their interest in RBI statistics is nil.

Most likely it was simply because Ripken is as prominent a piece of the Baltimore landscape as the Bromo-Seltzer tower or the statue of George Washington in Mount Vernon Place, both of which Ripken has closely resembled this season when batting with runners on base.

I hate talking baseball with people who know absolutely nothing about it, even when they are my sisters and I love them. I also hate talking baseball with people who know practically everything about it because they make me feel so ignorant.

For instance, I have been itching to ask this question of Thomas Boswell, baseball wizard of the Washington Post whose eye is always on the Orioles: Is there a law that says you can't walk Frank Thomas when he comes to bat with two men on base?

Thomas, who plays for the Chicago White Sox, comes to bat against the Orioles every few days with two men on base and usually hits a three-run homer. Being pathetically unlearned about baseball, however, I hesitate to ask baseball-wise Mr. Boswell why the opposing team doesn't simply walk Thomas in this situation.

Is it because they yearn to be three runs behind? Is it bad sportsmanship to deny Thomas his regular three-run homer by walking him? I'm so certain that this question shows I am completely stupid about baseball that you will never catch me asking it of a master.

I'm not so shy, however, about asking why so many people abuse baseball players for earning princely salaries. You rarely hear anybody say it's shameful that America throws millions at Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, David Letterman, Madonna or Robert Redford while treating teachers like dirt.

Corporate lawyers and investment bankers aren't constantly abused because they happen to be egregiously overpaid, or at least considerably better paid than the schoolteacher my sisters fret about.

For years, top corporate bosses have regularly been receiving huge pay boosts while running their businesses into the ground. Since the whole economy finally hit the rocks, public hostility, to be sure, has been rising against them, but the overpaid, incompetent CEO still doesn't provoke the kind of bile reserved for baseball players, many of whom are actually quite competent.

Part of it is probably that baseball is blue-collar work widely thought of as entertainment for blue-collar guys. Its long association with beer tells the story. Millionaires are the wine classes. Real guys drink beer.

There may be some mean-spirited streak of envy in Americans which makes them hate seeing a blue-collar worker being paid on the champagne scale along with show-biz stars, lawyers, bankers and corporate bosses. As evidence that the ballplayer doesn't deserve champagne living, note the TV scenes in the winner's locker room at season's end when baseball players use champagne bottles as water pistols.

In any case, you never hear anybody -- except maybe schoolteachers -- say it's disgraceful that movie, TV, rock, legal, banking, and corporate stars are paid so much better than schoolteachers.

This concern for schoolteachers, though doubtless sincere with my sisters, is probably just gassy discharge from the population at large. Americans' readiness to let the public school system go right on decaying if money is the price of stopping it is illustrated in election after election.

Ignore the humbug, Ripken. Get your money every Friday.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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