Baseball, TV are becoming a past time


Baseball continues its suicide dance, forsaking its claim a our national pastime and stumbling into a new identity:

A sport without a soul.

It's a coin flip to decide whether greedy owners, self-absorbed players or "purist" fans who whine about a loss of tradition deserve more lashes at the whipping post.

If these purists had their way, baseball players still would be shagging fly balls with ratty gloves while spectators watched in ramshackle wooden stands.

The latest cries bemoaning change echo from the recently announced television package: a six-year partnership between Major League Baseball and two networks, ABC and NBC, that entitles both sides to share costs and slice up the profits.

Representatives of the players' association claim they had no prior knowledge of the deal. Owners, citing escalating salaries and reduced profits, warn of major financial problems that will jeopardize smaller markets. Fans are upset with proposals to relegate playoff games to regional coverage and eliminate postseason playoff day games.

The incessant whining should compel anyone with common sense to switch channels to roller derby.

Perhaps they already have.

Network television ratings continue to drop, reflective of waning interest. Saturday's overnight ratings for the CBS baseball game between Los Angeles and Houston came in at an all-time low of 1.8 (each rating point equals 931,000 households). In simpler terms, network ratings are down 15 percent since 1989.

The push for expanded playoffs that will add about 20 games -- another insult to those purists stuck in a time warp -- points to the owners' frantic means of revitalizing interest in the game.

I think it's too late. Baseball already is comatose and primed for a respirator.

Free agency has robbed teams of their identities. There are few heroes in baseball, just play-for-pay mercenaries available to the highest bidder. Baltimore's Cal Ripken and Minnesota's Kirby Puckett are only two of a handful of superstars likely to begin and end their careers with the same organization. Instead of nurturing relationships with their stars, owners cater to prostitutes such as Jack Morris and Bobby Bonilla.

The average salary of a player has escalated to $1.1 million, but as we have found in such high-profile markets as New York and Los Angeles, money often buys more heartaches than hurrahs.

Players and owners continue their childish tug-of-war over money, a dispute likely to escalate in a lockout during the first half of the 1994 season. Is it only coincidence that the new agreement calls for 12 regular-season games to be shown after the All-Star break?

The pact may eventually push baseball beyond the point of no return. Agreeing to a TV deal without a dime up-front is very risky business -- and ultimately will trigger a severe drop in salaries. There simply won't be enough money to accommodate $30 million payrolls, the average in the sport these days.

"It's a reality check for the players and their union," White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said last week. "They thought everything was going to go up forever. . . . I'm not depressed about it, because if we got more, it would go to the players, anyway."

Amid the sniper fire between owners and players, Major League Baseball will be responsible for selling commercial time on game broadcasts. Instead of a rights fee, baseball will get to keep the majority of revenue generated from ad sales. The deal is expected to be consummated Friday.

This is not a novel concept. Six years ago, Chuck Rohe of Florida DTC Citrus Sports helped orchestrate a deal with ABC that nudged the bowl game into national prominence on New Year's Day.

Citrus Bowl officials sold 21 units (30-second commercials) that first season, accounting for a major portion of their rights fee. The latest agreement stipulates that the Citrus Bowl sell only 12 units. A guarantee is included in the package.

The marriage works. Do not expect the same bliss from baseball. The Citrus Bowl was on the rise. Baseball is on the decline. Beset by civil war, with no commissioner to settle disputes, baseball is in for a very tough sell.

"They better realize that baseball isn't the national pastime anymore," FCS Executive Director Rohe said.

Anyone care to cast a vote for roller derby?

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