Beyond New York, Baseball Season Looks Dim

By: Evan Weiner

As I was leaving town the other day, I made sure I brought along my old, battered copy of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” to read on the flight. I still have my original paperback. I know all the stories, all the nicknames, everything that I’d ever need to know about the 1969 Seattle Pilots. After 32 readings or so of this sports classic, it’s still a great way to open a baseball season, because “Ball Four” seems to be about baseball the way it ought to be. A lot of fun and laughs.

Well, maybe not exactly the way baseball ought to be, because in those days the players were practically the owners’ indentured servants. Of course, the 2003 baseball season might provide some fun, especially in New York. George Steinbrenner’s Yankees are a favorite to get back into the Fall Classic. Fred Wilpon’s Mets? Who knows? They have a lot of names. But the point is that New York baseball fans have something to root for, something to keep their interest.

In this way New York fans are lucky – whether they think so or not – because that’s atypical of the average baseball fan across the country. The Oakland Athletics afficianado is at the other end of the spectrum. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig undermined the legitimacy of the entire 2003 season last month when he suggested that a team like Oakland might still be a candidate for contraction, even though the agreement that the owners and players hammered out last August ensures that 30 teams will be competing through the length of the contract.

Striking a further blow, the Oakland ownership told its star player and American League MVP Miguel Tejada that it could not afford to pay him beyond this season. (Memo to Fred Wilpon: You can put Tejada in a Met uniform in 2004 after you dispose of Jeromy Burnitz’s contract.)

The Tejada situation is exactly what is wrong with Major League Baseball. Oakland couldn’t keep its best player, Jason Giambi, after the 2001 season and he ended up with the cash-rich George Steinbrenner Yankees. Oakland simply cannot compete with the Yankees or the Mets.

But Oakland isn’t the only problem. Baseball can’t find a suitable place to relocate the ownerless Montreal Expos. Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia want a shot at getting the Expos, but there is no money to build a baseball park in Portland, Washington wants to cap public investment in a baseball park, and it’s been a slow go in Virginia to get funding for a stadium. (Another memo to Wilpon: Montreal’s Vladimir Guerrero is a free agent after this season.)
In fact, baseball has become such a miserable investment that the man behind “Real Journalism” and “Fair and Balanced News” of the Fox News Channel, Rupert Murdoch, is selling his Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were once called “baseball’s answer to the Denver mint.”

Face it, the baseball business is bad all over. The Walt Disney Company reached baseball’s pinnacle and won the 2002 World Series as owners of the Anaheim Angels. But Disney has been trying to sell the team for a while and still lacks a buyer.

AOL Time Warner is in such bad shape that it may consider selling the Atlanta Braves. (Memo to Wilpon, buy this team – and close it.) The Cleveland Indians owner Larry Dolan has gutted the Indians because Cablevision’s stock dropped so much that he can’t make any real investments in players. Meanwhile, cash-starved teams in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Cincinnati, Florida, Montreal, Toronto and Milwaukee (home of Bud Selig’s Brewers) cannot compete for a
playoff spot on a regular basis – so much for their beleagured faithful.

Occasionally lightning strikes and a small market like Oakland or Minnesota fields a good team, but in the long run these franchises can’t hold onto their big names. And that means Steinbrenner and Wilpon can gobble up top players because their TV monies give them such a high stream of revenue.

Given the sorry plight of the national pastime, Selig has come up with a task force to solve baseball’s problems and he has gone to the bullpen to bring in his closer, George Will.

The conservative columnist is Selig’s ace in the hole. He was one of four people on Selig’s Blue Ribbon Committee studying the game’s economics in 2000 and, in Selig’s mind, Will brings a lot of gravitas to the game.

Will will be joined by the A-list of baseball insiders, including the heads of ESPN, FOX, academics from the Wharton Business School and Northwestern, and former players. But the task force does not include any paying customers; no Bleacher Creatures from Yankee Stadium or Mets fans who take the No. 7 train to Flushing.

Selig’s task force is comprised of the people (the TV network heads, the players association, the Wills of the world) who no doubt put baseball in the bad economic position it finds itself in.

By the way, Jim Bouton is not on that task force, either. Typical baseball. “Ball Four” is on the New York Public Library’s list of the most influential books written in the 20th Century. Bouton must know something about baseball. Certainly more than George Will.

Evan Weiner is a radio commentator on “The Business of Sports” for Westwood One’s Metro Networks.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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