A cloudy Opening Day

April 04, 2005|By Raymond Daniel Burke

FOR THE FIRST time in 34 years, the Orioles open their season with another Major League Baseball team just 35 miles away. The reinvention of the Montreal Expos as the Washington Nationals has the Orioles in a battle for the hearts and dollars of the region's fans. The timing is not good. After seven straight losing seasons, the home team is under the gun to produce a winner.

In the first nine seasons at Camden Yards, Orioles attendance figures were first or second in the league. But the recent run of mediocrity has caused them to fall to fifth the last two years. Attendance in 2003 was more than 1.25 million below the high of more than 3.7 million achieved in 1997 - a whopping 34 percent drop-off.

Unable to sign admittedly needed starting pitchers, the Orioles opted for more power and personality by acquiring superstar slugger Sammy Sosa. His addition to a potent lineup should at least make the team anything but boring. Widely credited with helping save the image of the game following the 1994 strike, Mr. Sosa's three 60-plus home run seasons put him in a class by himself.

But that rM-isumM-i also puts him squarely in the middle of baseball's steroid scandal, which calls into question the on-field achievements of the last several seasons. While Mr. Sosa and others have denied steroid use, the sport's failure during the last decade to implement a meaningful testing program has engendered suspicion about every bulging bicep and sudden leap in power statistics.

That Congress has seen fit to weigh in with hearings exposes the inherent inability of the game to police itself in the absence of a governing authority empowered to protect the best interests of the game from the self-interests of the owners and players.

It was not always this way. The "Black Sox" scandal, arising from a gambling conspiracy in which Chicago White Sox players were paid to throw the 1919 World Series, threatened to saddle baseball with an irrevocable loss of integrity.

It was then that the team owners persuaded a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to become the sport's first commissioner. He was vested with the broadest authority to investigate any act that might be detrimental to the best interests of the game and to impose any form of punitive action. Moreover, his decisions were final and could not be challenged.

Mr. Landis banned for life the eight White Sox players who had been implicated in the scandal, despite their having been found not guilty in criminal court proceedings. But perhaps it was the very harshness of Mr. Landis' dictates that was needed to restore the nation's faith in the game. His actions paved the way for baseball's golden age of legendary ballparks and heroic figures. Other strong commissioners followed.

By the 1990s, however, the most difficult challenge confronted by Commissioner Fay Vincent was an ownership group and a players union that had become driven to exploit the ever-increasing revenues and salaries of the modern game. The confrontation ended in Mr. Vincent's resignation in 1992.

For the next six years, baseball was run by the owners' executive council. That leadership vacuum produced the strike that canceled the end of the 1994 season. It was also the period when players' bodies suddenly began to bulk up, along with their home run totals.

In the history of baseball, only 21 players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season, and those 21 have done so a combined 36 times. Half of those occurred in the 75 seasons from 1920 until 1994. The other 18 occurred during only eight seasons from 1995 through 2002. The six greatest single-season home run totals occurred in a span of just four seasons - 1998 through 2001. In fact, 11 of the top 16 single-season home run performances have occurred since 1997.

While there are many explanations for the rise in power, it is fact that some players have used performance-enhancing drugs. The absence of a meaningful testing program leaves all players under a cloud.

So, on this Opening Day, let's hope for great things this year from the Orioles' offense and enough starting pitching to turn things over to a formidable bullpen. But let's also hope that this is the year when baseball realizes that the game is larger and more important than the parochial interests that are now in charge.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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