Baseball: Strike 9


Baseball players are threatening to walk out on Aug. 30—their ninth work stoppage since 1972. That's disheartening for a pair of reasons. One is that the players might not really mean it; their threat may be merely a negotiating ploy. The second reason is that the team owners are not also threatening to go away.

Speaking as somebody who once devoted many, many summer hours (and spring and autumn hours, too) to following baseball, I make this appeal to the players: Walk out and don't come back. If the players do try to come back, I say to the owners: Lock them out. Should the owners attempt a lock out, I urge the players to use their bats to force their way in. When that happens, I demand that the owners call in some Pinkerton goons. In fact, I won't really be satisfied until Attorney General John Ashcroft uses his ever-expanding power to suspend the constitutional rights of Major League baseball's leading figures and detains them, leaving the cell keys in the control of fans, stadium concessionaires who stand to lose their limited seasonal incomes, minimum-wage parking attendants who could be thrown out of work, and everybody else whose jobs depend on this battle between millionaires.

Why such venom? Simple: I have the same contempt for baseball that the sport has for me—and for all other former and present customers. The players—now wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of ball players of the past—have so much esteem for their remaining fans that (with the cooperation of Commissioner Bud Selig) they couldn't be bothered to play out this year's All Star Game. As for the owners, well, hold my coat and hand me my horsewhip. Here are characters who talk like capitalists when setting prices and complaining about salaries, but whose inner socialists emerge fast enough when it comes to sticking taxpayers with the cost of a stadium—and then ducking taxes on the profits they accumulate there.

Obviously, the appropriate reaction to baseball's never-ending labor problems is not venom, it's indifference: Let the bigs die a death as slow as the game they've been playing. But I claim a personal point of order, and I'm not going to let the moment pass. I had the absurd destiny of growing up a Washington baseball fan, and the Majors screwed people like me twice. In the 1960s, they moved the original franchise to Minnesota, sticking us with an expansion team that was even more hopeless than the old team (who, as the Twins, were soon to win a pennant); a decade later they moved the new franchise to Texas. That was a nice reward after decades of fielding the most consistent losers in the American League, and it was topped off with the charge that Washington couldn't support baseball, and didn't deserve it.

In fact, Washington supported its annual losers better than did a number of other cities with much better teams, but never mind that old stuff now. The intervening years have changed the issue of whether a given group of fans is "deserving" of big-time baseball into a question of whether baseball deserves any of its fans. It was the year after baseball screwed D.C. for the second time that the first player work stoppage occurred, and the seasons since have seen an ever-intensifying spectacle of player prima donna-ism on the one hand, and corporate extortion on the other, all at the expense of the loyal paying customer.

It's been 30 years since the expansion Senators became the Texas Rangers, and the Majors have yet to move another franchise. Not even out of Montreal, where there may be more bodies on the field than in the seats. Perhaps baseball has reconsidered the wisdom of shuffling teams as everybody caught on to the fact that owners were treating fans with dismissive contempt. As for the original Washington team, the Minnesota Twins, look at them now: Major League Baseball (with some encouragement from the team's owner) is trying to kill the franchise outright. Give me that line again about Washington being undeserving, why don't you?

Baseball has always come back from its problems because, as the owners realize, fans form powerful attachments and are willing to swallow the sport's phony, self-serving "boys of summer" hype. Despite the increasing number of people who are terminally disgusted, baseball will obviously survive. There are even interests in Washington vying for a future team in the capital (and a merry chase the Majors have been giving them). I wish them luck, but I'll content myself with the occasional rerun of Damn Yankees, the 1958 movie where the Senators win the pennant to the tune of "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets." The movie features footage of the actual Washington ball club of the time, an assemblage of pre-free-agency players who made so little money that they had to take off-season jobs in construction or insurance to feed their families. Even Roy Sievers, an All Star who led the league in homers and RBI, couldn't make any money out of the skinflint Washington ownership. He's in Damn Yankees, too, letting go with what Casey Stengel called "the most perfect swing in baseball." It's still a pleasure to watch it.