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What ails the pastime, and how to restore its health


BASEBALL'S past meets its future at 8:37 tonight when the Atlanta Braves meet the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series. For the first time in 70 years, the official ball will not carry the symbolic weight of the commissioner of baseball's signature. And for the first time one of the teams will represent a city from outside the U.S. Granted, a Canadian team barely qualifies as a foreign entry, but for the rest of the baseball-playing world, the Blue Jays' appearance gives hope for a truly global World Series before the middle of the 21st century.

That presumes that those running major league baseball and their counterparts at the Players Association are able to look beyond their own self-interests and keep our national pastime from going the way of the Edsel, the hula hoop and the five-cent cigar.

Baseball has not had a good year. Fay Vincent, the last commissioner, was ousted in a public drama. The owners can't seem to stop squabbling. A lockout by the owners seems imminent.

The game is also on the verge of losing a lot of money. National TV ratings are in a downward spiral, having dropped more than 20 percent since 1990. Ratings for the first Braves-Pirates game were the lowest ever for a National League championship. The second game wasn't much better. Ted Turner, the Braves owner, and his wife, Jane Fonda, were caught fast asleep in the stands in the middle innings. The two most exciting ninth-inning moments in post-season play this fall have occurred near midnight in the East. Worse, CBS, the network that covers the games, has expressed no interest in carrying a weekly game after its contract runs out next year.

Answers for the bad times are abundant. With revenues dropping, the owners want to squeeze the players. The players, in turn, are threatening to balk if the owners try to cap their salaries. The ad men and promoters question the game's appeal to a population accustomed to 30-second sound bites, half-hour sitcoms and in-your-fact slam dunks by Michael Jordan.

But if those concerned spent as much time and energy on long-range planning as they do fighting, they would discover that the drop in ratings is a misleading barometer of the game's popularity.

While the national audience for baseball telecasts has fallen, attendance at ballgames, despite a slight drop-off this year, has risen every season since 1986. In addition, cable viewership has gone up. If the baseball owners really want to get the attention of the networks -- and retain their lucrative national contracts -- they should consider several big changes.

First, they should expand the playoffs by one round. Allowing four more teams in the playoffs would increase the number of teams in contention in the last month of the season. The more teams, the more interest. Moreover, after three weeks of postseason coverage, the World Series combatants would have developed a regional following.

Second, the owners should agree to a limited number of regular-season games between the two leagues to foster natural rivalries, such as a Chicago matchup between the Cubs and the White Sox. The interleague games could be packaged as a weekly special.

Finally, baseball must find a way to speed up games. Perhaps the pitchers are right to complain that the umpires are at fault for calling such a tight strike zone. Every count, they say, seems to go to three and two. Maybe hitters are more accurate in saying that the pitchers treat every pitch as if there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Or maybe the umpires are correct in their assessment that the batters seems to step out of the box between every pitch, and the pitchers respond by stepping off the rubber. Whatever the reason, someone needs to wake up Ted and Jane before it's too late.

Because the interest in teams is provincial, local broadcasting revenues vary widely from one city to another. That is why there is an outcry from the owners over the high cost of labor. George Steinbrenner, who has no interest in sharing his revenues with the Seattle Mariners, signs free agent Danny Tartabull, who came up through the Mariners' farm system.

To compete, the Mariners have to pay their superstar, Ken Griffey Jr., a salary based on what players like Danny Tartabull are making on other teams, regardless of the size of their market. If they don't, an independent arbitrator will award Griffey's salary based on his market value.

Since the owners of teams in small cities have had little success persuading their big-city brethren to share their local wealth, the clubs have decided that the only way to handle the problem is to get the players to agree to some form of salary cap and wage scale arrangement. The players, understandably, are unwilling to consider any proposal that will limit their earning capabilities.

What's the answer? Allowing a free market system to operate, without the arbitration process, would go a long way toward resolving baseball's labor problems. Clubs would allow players to sell their services to whomever they choose once their contracts are up. In return, the players would do away with the arbitration system. The law of supply and demand would come into play. Until now, both sides have been reluctant to let it work.

The players' union has been concerned that the owners would allow all the players to become free agents at the same time. With a flooded market of talent, the bidding process would be limited and salaries would come down.

Likewise, the owners have always feared a true open market. The clubs cherish their control over player movement. Their argument against the open market is that unrestricted free agency would destroy the competitive balance between the clubs by allowing the big market teams to hoard top players. But the owners are wrong. Since the birth of free agency in 1976, 13 different teams have won the World Series. Only Cleveland, Seattle and Texas have not won a divisional championship.

If the competing interests that are tugging and pulling at the national pastime are able to focus on the future and resolve their differences, they will see that there are great opportunities for baseball, internationally and at home. If they don't, the public's boredom with the games played on the field -- and off it -- will grow until the national pastime finally strikes out looking.

Jack Sands, a sports lawyer, is co-author with Peter Gammons of the forthcoming "Coming Apart at the Seams."

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