The Magazine

The Decline of Baseball Civilization

From the April 13, 1998 issue: Our pastime isn't what it used to be, and neither are we.

Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Payroll pressures in baseball's widely unregulated market--basketball and football have salary caps, baseball has total financial anarchy--have made it almost impossible for the small-market teams to keep big stars. Albert Belle of the big-market Chicago White Sox makes more than the entire 25-man roster of the Montreal Expos combined. Result? The game's stars are abruptly bought and sold in response not to teams' competitive needs but to their financial needs.

Just last week, on the day before Opening Day, the impecunious Cincinnati Reds traded away their top pitcher for a young, cheap prospect. They sent him to Cleveland, a team rolling in money because of the success of its stadium. Said Reds manager, Jack McKeon, "This is the first time in my career as a major league manager that I've lost my Opening Day pitcher."

Cleveland, like the rich Yankees and Orioles and Braves, has been collecting all-stars with cash, practically assuring entry into the playoffs. Last year, the four remaining teams playing for the American and National League pennants ranked in the top five in total payroll. (The other big- wallet team, the New York Yankees, made the playoffs, too, but lost in the first round.) Meanwhile, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Montreal have to sell any player who achieves stardom just to keep from going broke.

Baseball players used to change teams through trades. But never did the major players, the anchors of the teams, the ones the kids idolized, change teams so often and so wildly. This buying and selling of talent breaks all ties to the local fans. It was most dramatically, almost comically illustrated by the Florida Marlins last year. An expansion team hungry for success, it spent $89 million to buy up the best free agents on the planet. Sure enough, it won itself a World Series. Then the owner, Blockbuster Video founder H. Wayne Huizenga, found that attendance was still down and the Marlins were hemorrhaging money, losing $4 million in 1997 and $30 million over the five-year history of the team. Solution? Sell off all the stars he had just bought. On Opening Day this year, half the players on the World Series squad were gone. The team is unrecognizable.

It's one thing to buy the World Series. It's another to rent it for a year.

In the old days, the wanton, financially driven dismantling of great teams was not unheard of, but it was certainly rare and vigorously discouraged by the force of public opinion and by decree of the commissioner. In Boston, Harry Frazee is still reviled 80 years after selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance his Broadway production of "No No Nanette." Connie Mack is notorious for having twice--in 1914 and in 1933--sold off the stars of his pennant-winning teams (including Hall of Famer Al Simmons) to keep his shoestring Philadelphia Athletics operation going.

Charley Finley, the owner of the Oakland A's in the early '70s, was not just eccentric--he had a mule for a mascot and once installed a mechanical rabbit that popped out of the ground near home plate with balls for the umpire--but stingy. In June 1976, he tried to sell two of his star players to the rich Red Sox and Yankees for cash. The commissioner stopped the trade cold "in the best interest of baseball." But there is no commissioner now, no one to stop such fan-betraying deals, no one to look after the best interests of baseball.

IV

Is baseball reaching the end of the road? A few more self-inflicted wounds and it may truly be remembered as a game of the 20th century: R.I.P. Major League Baseball, 1901-1999. The owners are, for example, still not aware how they squandered one of the great gifts baseball was ever handed, Michael Jordan. Jordan, the biggest sports star in the world, decided five years ago that instead of playing in the NBA finals, he would rather ride the buses and play AA baseball for the Birmingham Barons. At a time when baseball was losing its appeal, particularly among kids, to the glamour of football and basketball, Jordan's tribute to the game offered baseball an unexpected windfall of prestige.

Jordan's methodical and almost painful retraining as a baseball player might even have given him a shot at the major leagues, an event that would have electrified the sports world. Instead, he found himself in the spring of '95, as the baseball owners were about to bring on replacement minor league players to break the players' strike, caught in a bitter labor dispute. Rather than become a strikebreaker, he quit. He then returned his star power to basketball, which now thrives as never before.

Another attempt by the owners at self-inflicted mayhem failed mercifully last year. The acting commissioner, Bud Selig, proposed abolishing the American and National Leagues--brand names with loyalties going back a hundred years--and realigning the major league teams on a regional basis. At the last minute, this loony proposal was voted down. It will come up again, however. One must never underestimate the owners' capacity to injure the game.

Assuming, however, that nothing egregious of this sort happens in the near future, baseball will hobble along, enjoying a quiet senescence. Indeed, it will probably enjoy a bump in popularity in two or three years. That is when new stadiums will be completed in some of the small markets, and there will be a predictable increase in excitement and attendance as fans turn out for the park, if only secondarily for the game.

For a glimpse of the future, consider the Arizona Diamondbacks, the expansion team that just joined the National League. Its new stadium in Phoenix features a swimming pool in right-center field from which you can watch the game submerged. We've come a long way from Ebbetts Field.

At some stadiums you can now watch games while dining in a restaurant. Or, if you prefer, from the window of your hotel room--built into the outfield wall of the Skydome in Toronto. This led some years ago to the arrest of two patrons who left their curtains open while making whoopee in front of 50,000 fans who got to see more than just a baseball game.

Indeed, "more than just a baseball game" is what the owners are counting on to attract customers and save the sport. This dining and sleeping and soaking while watching baseball is part of what is called "the malling of baseball." The attraction becomes not so much the game as the experience of the stadium--the amenities, the novelty shops, the batting cages, the sports museums, the outfield jacuzzi.

Purists frown on this, but the purists had better shape up. They are a dying breed. If the malls that masquerade as stadiums can keep the game going for another 20 years, that will be fine with me. I'll bathe at home, thank you, but at least there will be a game to go to.

Contributing editor Charles Krauthammer is a former good-field, no-hit shortstop at Herzliah high school in Montreal.