Sad truth: Fans are just victims of baseball business

August 11, 1994|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, who once hit 115 home runs between them in a single season, are lounging near the cage, leaning on their bats, surveying the stands, and in the Yankees' dugout a tweedy writer, one of those poets of rapture who persists in swooning about the geometric perfection of the Elysian fields of baseball, watches the two sluggers and, mistily, he asks Casey Stengel:

"Look at those two. What do you think they're discussing? How to hit the curve ball? Which one will get to 60 first? How to generate top-hand torque?"

And the Yankees' manager, a crusty realist, tells the romantic, dryly but gently: "No, son, I imagine what they're doin' is, they're lookin' for broads."

Which, of course, they were.

And so was popped yet one more bubble of innocence.

The moral is, baseball is not always what we imagine it to be. Hardly ever, in fact.

What it always has been, and what it is now even more emphatically than ever, is commerce.

That, and all the naivete and romanticizing and the fantasizing aside, that and nothing else.

Oh, we devoutly wish it were something else. In our minds, baseball is, or should be, some sort of public trust. We imagine it to be exempt from traditional business standards and labor practices.

This is "baseball," after all, our umbilical cord to a less complicated time. Baseball is what we use to make the world go away, and so the usual rules shouldn't apply.

But they do.

Every baseball ticket, every telecast, every broadcast of every major-league game should carry this disclaimer: "For amusement purposes only."

The owners are the producers and the players are the performers, and while you and I say we would play the game for free, the fact is, we wouldn't. Not for very long, anyway. Only until the second past-due notices began to pile up.

The sad fact is, our love affair with baseball is strictly one-way. It is an unrequited romance.

You may be mad for baseball, but those who commit it are not mad for you.

The owners? For the most part, they have the consciences of robber barons and the compassion of carnivores. The team is an investment and is to be managed as such, a property from which profit is to be wrung, no different from, say, a cotton plantation.

The players? They labor in indentured servitude, though the chains that bind them are fashioned of gold and silver and diamonds. The least among them can afford a platinum credit card.

Many of the players can barely conceal their revulsion for the fans. If you knew how they despise you, what absolute contempt they hold for you (second only to their abhorrence of the pond scum in the media) and your fickleness and your boos and your insistent, harassing adulation, you would be stunned.

Or, if you have been personally snubbed by one of our curt, obscenity-spewing heroes, perhaps you wouldn't be stunned.

The owners extort monies from municipalities, wrangling tax breaks and taxpayer-financed renovations, and periodically /^ threaten to carpet-bag their teams to richer pastures. They have an antitrust exemption that they hide behind like a Mafia don invoking the Fifth Amendment.

It is not baseball that is the problem. It is the people in it.

The game is as wonderful as it ever was well, the DH is ridiculous and real grass is still superior but otherwise it remains worthy of our allegiance and devotion.

But it is a livelihood, and there is a struggle for control between labor and management, and now that struggle is as bitter as the war between cattle rancher and sheep herder.

The owners say they owe us the best product they can manufacture and the players say they owe us the best performance they can give. And that is the extent of the contract.

L In our heart of hearts, we know this to be technically true.

But it seems such a cold, sterile arrangement. Our passion is not returned, and no matter how frequently that happens, it doesn't make the disillusionment sting any less.

Loss of innocence always has hurt clean to the bone.

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