WE'RE SUCKERS FOR BASEBALL.
In our mind's eye, it is a game played under the warm afternoon sun, on a soft, green field, in a friendly, cozy ballpark. Listen—we can hear the crack of the bat or the pop of the catcher's mitt or the infield chatter. Watch—the batter digs in and the pitcher stares in, ready to deal. Kids scurry after foul balls. The stranger behind us expounds on the second sacker's knack for hitting in the clutch. We're glued to our seats until the final out.
In reality, alas, baseball is a game played mostly at night, much of it on carpeted concrete, in an impersonal, charmless stadium. We can't hear our own thoughts—never mind chatter—for all the noise coming from those blasted blasting speakers. When the pitcher isn't taking a stroll behind the mound, the batter is out of the box doing Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1. Kids, what kids? What parent in his right mind would subject a child to the drunken lout who's screaming at the millionaire slugger? Gotta go, it's past our bedtime, even though the game's in the seventh.
Still, we keep coming back. According to the figures, there's nothing wrong with baseball. For the sixth time in seven years, a major league attendance record was set in 1991. The economy of the game is healthy enough that the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Cubs, is willing to give Ryne Sandberg $7.1 million a year for four years to play second base. Three years ago the Baltimore Orioles were sold for $70 million, and now the asking price for the franchise is $200 million.
Despite the numbers, we can't shake this feeling that the game is heading for trouble. It's not just the usual impending labor impasse, although that's part of our dread. Somewhere in the Great Collective Bargaining Agreement baseball signed away part of its soul, and the owners and the players can't see what they're doing to the game. It is not the pastime we once cherished—still do—but an enterprise that places too much emphasis on money and not enough on fun. The perfect symbol of the change in baseball is the baseball card: Where once it was used for topsies and farsies, it is now used for investment portfolios.
These are not the rantings of an old codger who's hopelessly stuck in the past—Jose Canseco probably could carry Mickey Mantle's jock—but rather the concerns of someone who's worried that the baseball he's passing on to the next generation will be hollow: cowhide and string wrapped around nothing. And we're not just complaining about the state of the game. We're offering here, free of charge, a blueprint for baseball. This plan is not unlike the one for the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which honors the past and anticipates the future. While some of these suggestions have a retro aspect to them, they aren't all about a return to the good old days—some of them will make purists blanch.
This blueprint was drawn with the help of executives, umpires, managers, coaches, sportswriters, fans, pitchers, catchers, infielders and the odd centerfielder. Speaking of which, here is an idea from Andy Van Slyke of the Pittsburgh Pirates:
"Change the rules so that foul balls hit by the visiting team are in play. If a fan catches the ball, the batter is out. But if the ball is not caught, the batter and the runners can advance as many bases as they can. Besides making the game more exciting, this rule could have some long-range effects. Attendance would go up in places like Cleveland, where right now a ball hit into the seats behind home plate would turn into a home run. Fans would need to get in shape to help the home team, so we'd have a nationwide fitness boom. And—this is the part the players will like—we can yell 'Get a job!' at the fans when they drop an easy pop-up."
Thanks for your thoughts, Andy.
Now, in all seriousness, here are nine ideas—one for each inning—to help baseball, before the 21st century comes up and takes it deep.
Interleague play is a natural. The fans will love it, the clubs will realize a windfall both in attendance and in the attractive TV package that would come along with it, and the players are intrigued by it. "I'd love to play against guys like Barry Larkin," says future Hall of Famer George Brett. "Our fans in Kansas City would love to see Ryne Sandberg. It might even cut down on travel."
Think of the geographic (Cubs versus White Sox) and historic (Reds versus Red Sox) rivalries. The scheduling, of course, will be tricky, but since both leagues will have 14 teams next season, try this: Each team would have 12 games against teams in its own division (72 games), six games against clubs in the other division of its league (42) and a three-game series against each team in the other league (42). Voilà! You have a 156-game schedule—162 games is too many, anyway—with home teams alternating every year in interleague play. As for the DH, the same home-park rules would apply as in the World Series.
What's that, you say? Interleague play will take away from the All-Star Game and the Series? Well, the NBA and the NFL have interconference play, and the last time we looked, the NBA All-Star Game and the Super Bowl still had a few people watching.
Children are baseball's future, yet they get very little consideration. The Texas Rangers will play a total of six day games at home this year, none between the end and the start of the school year. Sure it's hot in Arlington, but it's also hot in Atlanta (19 day games), St. Louis (20) and San Diego (24). Teams should follow Oakland's example. The A's will play 38 day games this season, and as their vice-president of business operations, Andy Dolich, points out, "Our attendance revival in the early 1980s can be directly traced to more day games." Baseball should establish 20 as a minimum number of day games—11 teams fall below that mark now.
Baseball should also insist in the next TV contract that two or more of its World Series games be broadcast during the day. "We just had one of the most exciting, best-played Series ever," says American League umpire Jim McKean, "and my eight-year-old never got past the third inning. Even I had to struggle to stay awake."
Here are some other suggestions to bring kids into the park. Move up night starting times from the customary 7:35 to 7:05; this will also diminish that mass exodus in the seventh. Just as at the movies, baseball tickets should be half-price for children under 14, at least for walk-up sales. And to help foster a family atmosphere, baseball has to continue its efforts to control the flow of beer.
If the baseball powers that be don't believe their audience of the future is endangered, let them consider this statistic: According to a recent SI For Kids poll of 600 children, ages eight to 12, who were asked which sports they "watched a lot" on TV, 36% said baseball, 42% said basketball, 43% said football and 45% said wrestling. You're losing them, and to the WWF, no less.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
"Personally, I would detonate every domed stadium and rip up every inch of artificial turf," says John Schuerholz, general manager of the Atlanta Braves. Detonation may be a bit extreme, but we're with you, John. Baseball should not allow any more rugs, and the 10 that exist should be replaced as soon as possible. After all, they'll be growing grass in the Silverdome for the 1994 World Cup. Kansas City groundskeeper George Toma, who can grow grass on a piece of bread, says the old argument that artificial turf requires less maintenance and less expense no longer holds water. "I take care of both artificial and real turf," says Toma, "and let me tell you, we spend just as much time and money on the carpet as we do on the grass."
Artificial turf has done more to alter the game's statistics than any other change since the dead ball was replaced in 1920. And it doesn't make economic sense to expose high-priced talent to the everyday wear-and-tear caused by artificial turf. If the Twins are going to give Kirby Puckett $8 million a year, they should take better care of him.
Last year the White Sox and Red Sox played a nine-inning night game that lasted four hours and 11 minutes. The average time of an American League game last year was 2:52. Twenty years ago, an American League game was 2:36. Thirty years ago, it was 2:23. "It used to be," says Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill, "that when a game got to the seventh, you started feeling sad because it was about to end. Now when it gets to the seventh, you're relieved."
Don't blame just television commercial breaks. Nowadays, players take their own sweet time. Ever notice how many batters wait until their names are announced before leaving the on-deck circle? Maxvill has. "Figure 10 seconds a batter, 60 batters a game, and right there you've got an extra 10 minutes," he says. Another problem is the histrionic batter. As Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon says, "Every time you throw an inside pitch now, it's a two-minute ordeal before the batter steps back in."
Long games not only bore fans, but they also diminish the quality of play. Says A's manager Tony La Russa, "I now am careful about calling throws to first base and step-offs. It is not just for the fans, it is for the defense. You don't want them to get back on their heels. We have got to pick up the pace. Managers, players, umpires, everybody. It will be a better show if we move a little quicker."
Every little bit helps. Says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller, "When a batter steps out of the box, he should have to keep one foot in it. That would stop a guy like Dave Magadan from walking around."
Another solution: Enforce the 20-second time limit between pitches that's already in the rule book. If the pitcher isn't ready to throw within 20 seconds, the umpire can call a ball. If the batter isn't ready after 20 seconds, the ump can tell the pitcher to throw the ball and call it a strike.
Frank Pulli is baseball's Sultan of Short. Generally acknowledged as the fastest ump in the National League (Steve Palermo is the fastest in the American League), Pulli has been working major league games for 20 years; he has a generous strike zone and a hurry-up attitude, both of which help immeasurably. "The guys who get to me are the ones who walk 60 feet up the line to get a sign," says Pulli. "You can't change the rules, limit pickoffs or put up a 20-second clock. But you could limit the number of trips a catcher makes to the mound. Basically, though, you just have to keep things moving."
Vic Voltaggio and McKean, a pair of American League umpires, were Pulli's partners one day this March in Dunedin, Fla., the Blue Jays' spring training home, and they joked with him that their games are going to be even longer this year while his games will get shorter. "It's not fair," says Voltaggio. "We're giving you two of our fastest workers, [Greg] Swindell and [Bret] Saberhagen, and you give us [Rick] Sutcliffe."
It was probably just coincidence, but after talking about shortening games, these umps worked a nine-inning contest, complete with five pitching changes, that lasted one hour and 51 minutes.
The strike zone is too small, too low and too outside. But it can't be changed overnight. The diminished strike zone is a result of evolution, of the umpires' gradually altered vision of the zone over the years; it will take time to get it back where it belongs.
To help effect that change, we suggest that baseball centralize its umpiring system. In other words, no more National League umps and American League umps. Just major league umps. By standardizing training and merging the leagues' umpire bureaucracies, baseball would be better able to control the dimensions of its strike zone.
"Combining the two leagues wouldn't bother us," says Voltaggio. "Since the AL got rid of the outside protector, there isn't that much difference between us anymore." Another benefit: An umpiring merger would cut down on travel, an important consideration for the men in blue, who work very hard.
THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
Andy Dolich has a great idea. "All you read about baseball now in the off-season has to do with salaries and arbitration," he says. "Did you hear anything about the last World Series after it was over? I didn't, and it was the greatest ever played. This is what I would do. Hold an Academy Awards-style extravaganza in November or December, where you present the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year awards. 'The nominees are....' And then you run film clips. Imagine the suspense as Ted Williams opens the envelope for American League MVP. Tommy Lasorda can get Ol' Blue Eyes to come."
Not only would it keep baseball fresh in people's minds during the winter, but it would also give them a chance to see what Kirby Puckett looks like in a tux. ("Live from the Happy Chandler Pavilion....") As it now stands, the Baseball Writers Association of America announces its awards over the course of three weeks in November, and this dribble method has very little impact. Some network would be wise to pay the BBWAA for the rights to the awards and then put together a dynamite show. They could have little statues called Babes. The BBWAA could even reveal the results of its annual Hall of Fame balloting that night. Think of the possibilities.
But baseball doesn't. There's a larger point to be made here: Major League Baseball does not do a good job of promoting itself. It does a good job at merchandising, but when it comes to the game itself, it is passive—Take yourself out to the ball game—rather than active.
According to Advertising Age, there are only two highly marketable baseball stars. One of them, Nolan Ryan, is 45 years old, and the other, Bo Jackson, will probably never play the game again. Don't tell us baseball players aren't worthy of Madison Avenue superstardom. Cal Ripken is to shortstops what Michael Jordan is to shooting guards. He's handsome. He's generous. He's well spoken. Yet he's invisible to most of us. With a little of the NBA's savvy, baseball could be letting the country know what the people in Baltimore have known all along.
GIVING SOMETHING BACK
There are scores of players like Puckett and Ripken and the Mariners' Harold Reynolds who are actively involved in service organizations and charitable functions in their cities. But there are hundreds of players who treat the citizens of their communities as if they were pesky kids asking for autographs: Not now, I'm busy. With those million-dollar contracts comes responsibility. Yet when an employee of a certain National League club in a large—very large—Eastern city was recently asked how many of his 25 players consistently helped out with charities, he held up four fingers.
Some clubs, like the A's and the Orioles, have a higher percentage of players who give a damn. As a matter of policy, the Oriole front office asks every rookie to identify himself with a charitable cause. While most teams have a community affairs department, they could go even further by creating a position for a home secretary—as opposed to the traveling secretary—whose primary responsibility would be to get the players settled and involved in the community.
Baseball has taken other, mostly mincing, steps in that area. Here's an idea that broadcaster Tony Kubek tried to sell to commissioner Bowie Kuhn some years ago: Make the All-Star break five days long—Monday to Friday—instead of the current three, and fill the week with clinics and classroom visits by the players. "It would give the players a little more rest, and it would do the players and the kids a world of good," says Kubek. "And every minor league team should do it as well."
A REAL AND LASTING PEACE?
Let's see. Communism is dead. The people of South Africa overwhelmingly voted to end apartheid. George Brett got married. All things seem possible.
So we will now attempt in the next few paragraphs to do something that hasn't been done since the reserve clause was instituted in 1879: end the animosity between the owners and the players. (The two sides did form a Joint Economic Study Committee last year, but Amelia Earhart will be found sooner than that committee.)
The owners and players must first get their own acts together. The union may be unified, but it is not serving its whole constituency, not when the "middle-class player" is being squeezed out as clubs opt for high-priced talent and bargain players. That may be an oversimplification, but it's a fact that some good players had to settle for minor league contracts this year, while others were cut this spring because they made too much money. It doesn't do ex-Yankee shortstop Alvaro Espinoza much good to get a $1 million contract and then get cut because of his salary. So the Players Association might want to think less about upward mobility and more about job security. For instance, a pay-for-performance concept may make union head Donald Fehr feel faint, but what if he were to use it as a bargaining chip to help procure guaranteed salaries?
The owners, too, must think of each other. The larger clubs ask, Why should we help the smaller clubs? Why should we share our local TV and radio revenue? Because it's time. If you want competitive balance, if you don't want hobo franchises, if you don't want to hear any more whining from the small-market teams, then share. Just a little. Put, say, 25% of all local TV and radio money into one big pot and split it equally. It's not going to kill you. Remember, you're all in this together.
Next, the two sides can start talking about revenue participation, a la the NBA. In the NBA, the players get 53% of the league revenue, which is too high for baseball. (NBA teams don't have the expense of minor league systems, for instance.) When the owners offered an NBA-style plan back in 1989, they were thinking of a proposal around 40%, which is too low. Somewhere in the middle is the answer, and once the owners open their books—it's only fair that they do—labor and management can begin to negotiate a fair percentage based on total revenues and total salary compensation. For the sake of argument, make it 45%.
There are basically two categories of baseball players: those with six years or less experience, and those with more than six—the potential free agents. Approximately 40% of player salaries are currently devoted to players at or under the six-year line. Since players with six years or less are bound to their clubs, it really shouldn't matter who pays them, so here is the proposal. Give 40% of the 45% (the players' share of the revenue) to the Players Association and let the union pay the six-and-unders.
Pay them how much? In the last labor go-around, the owners suggested a crude pay-for-performance scale that lumped catchers in with middle infielders and made no allowance for such things as defensive range and the ability to handle pitchers. That scale can be greatly improved and refined, continually if need be. The administration of this new system will admittedly be a headache for the Players Association; in return for assuming this responsibility, the union should get some recompense. How about enough money for a pension plan for minor leaguers, many of whom devote the best years of their lives to the game without ever making the big bucks?
This system would nearly eliminate arbitration, which the owners hate more than they do Marvin Miller. In gratitude the owners could guarantee contracts for a year, saving the jobs of players like Espinoza.
The clubs would get the remaining 60% of the players' funds, which they would use to sign or retain free agents, or use to sign their younger players to long-term contracts. The teams can't spend less, but if they choose to spend more, they may. No salary cap, just a salary minimum. (If spending money guaranteed a title, Gene Autry would have 10 World Series rings by now.)
That's it. Ta da!
A STERN AT THE HELM
Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is a decent man with a touch of the poet. He sees himself as a caretaker and protector of the game, and he acts accordingly. As an interim commissioner following the death of Bart Giamatti, he was the best possible choice.
But is he the man to take the game into the 21st century, to make the World Series a true World Series, to put a franchise in Mexico City? The owners already think so little of Vincent that they agreed to pay Richard Ravitch, the new head of their Player Relations Committee, more than the commissioner. Vincent has lobbied long and hard for racial integration in baseball management, yet every team with a managerial opening last fall hired Phil Garner.
So who, besides Andy Van Slyke, should lead the national pastime? Who would be the David Stern of baseball? Several names have already been bandied about in baseball circles as a successor to Vincent when his term expires after the '93 season: CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg, Schuerholz, Twins general manager Andy MacPhail.
But since we're shooting for the moon here, let's nominate a man who already has a tougher executive position than baseball commissioner, a man who once played minor league baseball, a man who is an orator equal to Bart Giamatti. He says he doesn't want to run for President of the United States, but maybe New York Governor Mario Cuomo would like to be commissioner.
Cuomo will certainly have his work cut out for him. But then, if the sun is shining, the grass is green, the kids are roaming the aisles and Ripken is taking the extra base, there's nothing at all wrong with this game. We're suckers for baseball.