Logo a no-go, MLB takes comic fall on the bases

Baseball

May 07, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

So long, Spider-Man. You were a real conversation piece - for about 25 hours. If only the cicadas promised to disappear this fast.

Let's get this straight: The "leaders" of baseball, who were clueless and foolish enough to sell the game's soul and its pristine white bases to a movie studio for a few measly advertising dollars, are the same "leaders" who have now canceled the goofy and ludicrous advertising campaign because a tsunami of negativity engulfed them.

From bad to worse we go. Commissioner Bud Selig and Co. continue to do what they do best: spin a web of buffoonery suitable for a Hollywood blockbuster. We're thinking The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Or Dumb and Dumber.

Only this comedy is so funny, it's sad. It's so sad, it's pathetic.

"We are pleased to be moving ahead with all other elements of this groundbreaking marketing partnership and will continue to pursue new and innovative ways to market the game and engage baseball fans around the globe," Bob DuPuy, baseball's president and chief operating officer, said yesterday.

This was after baseball decided to yank the Spider-Man 2 logos from bases and pitching rubbers, as had been announced Wednesday night, for 15 ballparks June 11-13.

Sounds like a bad week for right-hand men of high-profile leaders.

What makes this Spider-Man 2 oops so bad is that it's not an isolated incident of brain-cramping goofiness on the part of baseball's eager marketing geniuses. Some people thought it was ridiculous to send the Yankees and Devil Rays all the way to Japan to start the regular season. Why grow a Pacific Rim market at the expense of Derek Jeter's batting average? At least one could argue that the great baseball fans in Japan deserved the games, that globally, it's nice to reach out and touch.

But Spider-Man 2 was never a good idea. It shouldn't have taken 24 hours of deafening water cooler chatter to show baseball's brain trust how ill-conceived the whole plan was.

This, friends, is the "quality" of baseball's leadership.

As if contraction and the never-ending plight of the nomadic Expos weren't bad enough to prove there's something wrong in the state of baseball. Maybe Selig is waiting for Uranus to offer to build a stadium before making a decision.

As if the too-cozy and pocket-lining deals Selig has had with Twins owner Carl Pohlad, Marlins/Red Sox owner John Henry and Expos/Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria weren't evidence enough that an owner of a baseball team shouldn't be allowed to be commissioner of the game.

As if the Brewers' freshly reported losses of $133 million aren't proof that bad management may play a part in NL Central doormat Milwaukee's plight as much as any small-market laments.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that Wisconsin lawmakers have called for a full-fledged public audit, something the Brewers long resisted. Assembly speaker John Gard, who called for the state review, said the team's financial situation shows the Brewers' best hope is new owners.

"Unfortunately, the kind of ownership size, structure and resources that worked for decades is a horse-and-buggy in today's turbocharged baseball marketplace," Gard said.

If Selig can't run a baseball team, can he run baseball? Even at this moment, with attendance up at major league ballparks and momentum from a terrific postseason, baseball just does not understand what it is, where it could go, how to get there.

For anyone who needs a memory refresher, we are all able to visualize the body language and leadership skills Selig exhibits in any number of baseball pratfalls, having seen the commissioner do his thing on national television in other high-profile crises.

See Selig shrug. See Selig throw up his hands. See Selig in a shower of bratwurst wrappers in his own brand-new, publicly financed ballpark. See Selig cancel another game in midstream.

Talk about nebulous. Talk about lack of courage. Talk about lack of conviction. Talk about wimpy. Talk about running a sports entertainment industry as if you were selling 1968 used Malibus off the back lot in a low-rent section of Milwaukee.

It doesn't matter that the hairtrigger decision to scale back the Spider-Man 2 ad campaign came from movie studio honchos.

"We saw some of the polls on the Internet that said that 71 and 81 percent of the fans didn't approve of it," Geoffrey Ammer, president of worldwide marketing for the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, told ESPN.com.

"Based on this reaction from the fans, we didn't want to do anything to take away from their enjoyment of the game and if that was the case with this element of the promotion, we could afford to do without it."

We expect movie studio types to peddle their mass-market pablum to any and all takers, just as we'd expect them to run for the Hollywood hills the minute they saw trouble, or controversy. The entertainment folks canceled the Reagan movie. Disney and Michael Eisner are now holding back documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, from distribution.

But the point is: Selig and Co. do not know their product and/or understand their audience enough to have had some inkling as to the way the audience would react.

The thing about core baseball fans is that they are hardcore. That doesn't mean all baseball fans are severe traditionalists who yearn to share a box at Camden Yards or Fenway Park with George Will or Doris Kearns Goodwin. It doesn't mean that baseball mustn't do things to regenerate its fan base.

It just means this is not a fan base that needs to be broadened by a marketing campaign that defiles the game's simple equipment and demeans the particular sanctity of the game.

And if the short-lived relationship between the makers of Spider-Man 2 and baseball was a trial balloon for future advertising enterprises meant to generate dollars and spin baseball to a broader audience, well, this trial balloon was the The Hindenburg 2.

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