Out by a mile

July 11, 2002

HOW FITTING it was that baseball's All-Star Game ended with a sibling's kiss Tuesday night, a called tie that so accurately reflected the crippling stasis that dogs America's game.

Actually, stasis may be too flattering. How does deterioration sound? Or slow rot?

The rain of boos that showered Commissioner Bud Selig after he ended the midseason interleague contest represented a mere cloudburst among a much more complex system of turbulent disaffection between those who watch the game and those who play, manage and run it.

The truth is, baseball as a game is not totally unhealthy these days. The home run record, once seemingly insurmountable, has been bested twice in the past four seasons. Last year's World Series was one of the most gripping thrillers in decades. Even the All-Star Game was an unusually competitive showcase -- that is, until Mr. Selig decided we'd all seen enough.

And yet, fans are staying away from the ballpark in droves this season (attendance was down 4.5 percent by the end of April), thanks in no small part to the mismanagement of off-the-field issues: soaring ticket prices, occasionally petulant and aloof players, and owners who, like their representative, Mr. Selig, just don't seem to get it.

Sadly, the future does not promise much in the way of improvement. Even if the impending labor strife does not culminate in a work stoppage, the constant prattle about a possible strike is doing nothing to revive fans' allegiance to the game.

Moreover, the flat refusals by big-market owners and players to negotiate honestly over revenue sharing and salary caps (reforms that arguably could solve many of baseball's other problems) seems increasingly dense.

All but five of the 30 major-league teams reported losing money last year. And baseball's admirable Horatio Algers (teams such as Minnesota and Montreal) notwithstanding, the size of a team's payroll is generally the strongest predictor of its success. Too often, the season is a battle between eight or 10 teams that really have a chance; the others are out of it by June.

Tuesday night's hero was to be honored with an award named for Ted Williams, the Red Sox Hall of Famer who enthralled fans over a 19-year career and died last week. But a tie game didn't yield an MVP, so the prize -- and the accompanying comparison to Mr. Williams and the game of his era --went unclaimed. How appropriate.

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