You Get What You Pay For And vice versa, as the once ubiquitous freebie vanishes from the sports scene

November 26, 2001

Americans will buy anything: water (in bottles), air (at gas
stations) and even that most basic of human
entitlements--television (via cable). So it shouldn't surprise
sports fans that we're now required to pay for pleasures that we
used to get free. The Washington Redskins charge a $10 admission
fee to their training camp workouts. Elsewhere the ticket you
purchase for a pro sports event is often available to you only
if you have already paid for a seat license. Meanwhile, not
buying a ticket--well, that, too, can be prohibitively
expensive. Simply sitting on a rooftop across from Wrigley Field
is, in this day and age, an exorbitantly priced (and fully
catered) affair.

There do remain, however, a few free lunches in sports. (Sadly,
lunch is not among them, for sportswriters now have to open their
wallets, with the jaws of life used by emergency-rescue
personnel, to pay for pregame press room meals that were once
complimentary.) So let us give thanks, this Thanksgiving, for
those fundamental freebies that are still available to you, the
frugal fan, who is at this very moment enjoying one of them:
standing before the magazine rack at 7-Eleven and reading SI
without paying.

Yes, you can still get something for nothing. The New York
Yankees, for one, intend to broadcast a full 20 of their games
on over-the-air television next season. While that's down from
50 games last season, it's still a generous 12% of their
schedule, scattered like birdseed to freeloading fans. Indeed
the Yanks and all teams in professional sports do, in a manner
of speaking, provide, gratis, their entire schedules. That is to
say, their pocket schedules--those business-card-sized souvenirs
that open up, accordion-style, to reveal month upon gaily
colored month of games that you can't afford to attend.

No matter. So much is given to us: Radio is still free. Also,
most of your home team's NFL games can be caught with nothing
more than a bad TV and a good wire coat hanger. And if you stand
outside Camden Yards on game day and peer through iron bars like
a prisoner of war, you can see--free of charge--a large swath of
outfield grass.

Some things you can't put a price on. Human contact, alas, is not
one of them. Those small moments that were once possible at the
ballpark--getting an autograph, an idle conversation with an
athlete--can now cost you. Signatures have long been for sale in
in-flight magazines along with the executive knickknacks. (Bill
Buckner has actually autographed prints of his worst moment, a
keepsake officially sold, for $99.95, as the Boot.) During this
past baseball season a company began to market an even better
birthday present: telephone conversations with retired
ballplayers, charged at several dollars per minute, in much the
same manner as phone-sex hotlines. (One can picture the delirious
40th-birthday boy panting into the receiver, asking Graig Nettles
what he's wearing right now.)

Still, sports fans have it pretty good. Think of all those
corners of our universe that commercial interests have yet to
colonize. Barry Bonds does not yet collect a royalty when you
discuss his home run record in a bar. (Sing Cracklin' Rosie in
that same bar, on a karaoke machine, and Neil Diamond is
enriched.) Drinking water now costs two or three dollars in most
stadiums, but toilet water is still on the house. (Try flushing
for free in many foreign airports.) While a 24-exposure
disposable camera--essentially, a roll of film--costs a
breathtaking $30 at Yankee Stadium (processing not included), no
further fee is levied when photographing Don Zimmer. (By
comparison, you can't take snaps of model Gisele Bundchen for
less than $7,000 an hour.)

Shameless Bud Selig, the ludicrous baseball commissioner, said
last week that Minnesotans should "take a good look in the
mirror" regarding the potential demise of the Twins, which the
owners are considering because citizens of that state declined to
pay for a new stadium. But just because Selig and his cohorts are
"baseball owners" doesn't mean that they own baseball, any more
than Al Davis owns football or Donald Trump owns architecture. It
still costs nothing to play long toss in the backyard until your
dead arm dangles like a wind sock on a windless day. Or to stomp
paper cups, in some concrete concourse, to see who can make the
loudest pop! Or to sit in your attic, one January night, and
wonder why--for his 1974 Topps baseball card--Tito Fuentes wore a
headband on the outside of his Giants cap.

These things may not sound like much, but they're all we have
left. And--like butterflies--they're free. No owners can take
them from us. Though heaven knows they'll try.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)