Easy As 1-2-3

Baseball again steps to the brink, with fans lining up to give it a shove. Rather than strike out, let's take a swing at fixing the mess.

August 29, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

SO ONCE AGAIN baseball stands with a bright, shiny Luger pressed against its forehead, threatening to blow its brains out while so many sports fans yawn and say: "Uh, not on the carpet, OK?"

Spoiled millionaire ballplayers feuding with arrogant millionaire owners - is that a hoot or what?

If they held these labor negotiations in the middle of a swamp, most of the country would be rooting for the quicksand.

This is what happens when the greed on both sides becomes too much.

It's what happens when the paying customers become fed up with $30 tickets and $5 hotdogs, with players who act as if you're asking for their firstborn child when you ask for an autograph, with owners who threaten to move their franchises if the taxpayers don't build them a spiffy new stadium down by the waterfront so they can hang out in their luxury boxes with their rich pals.

It's called backlash. So if the major league players go on strike tomorrow, I don't see a lot of fans wailing and dabbing their eyes with Kleenex.

Oh, sure, the fans will be back when the strike's over. They always say they won't, but they will. Why? I don't know, maybe because they're dopes.

Or maybe because they're dopes like me, who love the game and played it as kids and have this wonderful connection to it, a connection that nurtures the soul each summer.

But strike or no strike, baseball has three major problems facing it, problems that will sour its fan base even further if the following steps aren't taken:

Let everyone have a shot at the Big Dance.

Tell me something. How do you remain a fan of the Royals or Pirates or Padres when, year in and year out, your team has no chance - none, zero, zip - of contending for the pennant?

Why would you ever go to the ballpark?

For Umbrella Night?

To swill a couple of those warm $5 beers?

To get your Carlos Beltran bobble-head doll?

If it's just the big-market teams in the World Series every year - or the teams of owners with deep pockets - why should the fans in baseball ghettos like Kansas City and Pittsburgh and San Diego care about the game's future?

Besides, how often can you watch the Yankees and the Braves in the post-season?

Isn't this getting, like, real, real old?

Get kids excited about baseball again.

Right now, baseball is turning off a whole generation of young fans with some of its idiotic policies, such as playing the World Series only at night, with late starting times that guarantee lots of kids will be in bed by the fifth inning.

Not exactly a sound policy for attracting new fans, is it? Having them miss the outcome of your premier showcase?

And unless the owners want to see their stadiums filled exclusively with geezers like me, they better do something about it fast.

Let's face it, kids aren't jazzed about baseball like they used to be. When's the last time you saw a bunch of kids grab their bats and gloves and play a pick-up game in the park?

Or even a Wiffle ball game in the back yard, for that matter?

True story: During a recent vacation in New England, we shared a beach house with two other families. Between us, we had six kids 16 and younger. You know what the kids watched on TV every night after a day of swimming and boogie-boarding?

Hint: It wasn't the Red Sox game, baby.

No, it was the X-Games. Every night, they watched young guys flying through the air on skateboards and dirt bikes and inline skates, doing death-defying somersaults and back flips in front of a sell-out, roaring crowd.

Me, I couldn't watch this stuff without thinking: Damn, I should've gone into orthopedic surgery.

But for the kids, it was apparently more compelling than watching Manny Ramirez step out of the batter's box after every pitch and re-adjust his batting gloves, which I found oddly sad.

Make the games shorter.

Oh, yeah, these 4-hour games have to go.

My old friend Jon Miller, the former radio voice of the Orioles who's now broadcasting San Francisco Giants games and Sunday night baseball for ESPN, used to argue that he never heard fans complain about the length of games.

But he's wrong. Dead wrong.

I hear them complaining all the time.

At a night game at Camden Yards, fans are heading for the exits by 10 or 10:30.

Look, no matter how exciting the game is, people have to get up for work the next morning.

They have little kids nodding off in their seats, older kids who have to be up early the next day for school.

They can't stay until 11 or 11:30 at night on a weekday, even if it's a nail-biter.

And how many 4-hour games are nail-biters, anyway? More likely, a 4-hour game features the usual lengthy commercial breaks, the endless parades to the mound by managers and pitching coaches, the agonizingly slow work by nervous pitchers trying to keep base-runners close.

So to the owners and players, I'd say this: Put down the Luger, boys.

Just make a few changes and the game will be fine.

It's a lot less messy in the long run.

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