Baseball takes bashing but bounces back


Attendance is up 24 percent, 9 percent not counting the Colorado and Florida expansion franchises. Six teams are averaging more than 40,000 per game. At the end of the regular season, two of these teams will have a home gate in excess of 4 million.

Seldom have the pennant races been closer, especially in the American League. Four teams are within a game of the lead in the East, five within 2 1/2 games. In the West, six games separate the top five teams. Even the Oakland A's, who have begun to experiment with three-inning pitchers, have a chance: nine games out with 71 to play.

The supposedly runaway Philadelphia Phillies, 11 1/2 in front on June 14, appear to be fading in the National League East, their lead chopped to five games over the pursuing St. Louis Cardinals. The San Francisco Giants have a comfortable lead in the West but must beware. The Atlanta Braves have strengthened their offense with the acquisition of slugger Fred McGriff.

Big-league baseball is not only alive and well but more exciting than ever. Nonetheless, there is considerable baseball bashing. Almost daily, there are reports that the national pastime is on the wane, its popularity severely diminished.

I can't understand it, so I called Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, the commissioner pro-temp, and asked if he had an explanation.

"I find it troubling, distressing and incorrect," Selig replied. "More people are watching baseball than ever before. The only answer I can think of is that it's become fashionable to bang us for everything. Some people seem to take a delight in it."

Groping, I mentioned that perhaps some of the fans may be upset by the constant squabbling between the owners and players.

Clearly, it's an adversarial relationship. But, then again, it has always been that way -- from the birth of the first professional team in 1869 when, for the first time, each of the players on the Cincinnati Red Stockings was on salary and complaining: $100 a month was insufficient.

Last week in Baltimore, on the afternoon of the All-Star Game, Don Fehr, head of the players' union, threatened a Labor Day strike if the owners refuse to begin serious bargaining on a new Basic Agreement.

"I can't understand why Mr. Fehr is upset," Selig said. "Player salaries are at an all-time high and continue to increase. The average player salary is now $1.1 million."

Consider the case of Barry Bonds. Peter Magowan, the new owner of the Giants, signed Bonds to a record six-year, $43.75-million contract. Instead of heralding Bonds as worthy of such a deal, the owners expressed anger with Magowan.

Why was that, Mr. Selig?

"Baseball is the only sport that has salary arbitration. Because of that, every club is affected. The arbitrators will now consider Bonds' contract the norm for a star player."

Baseball also has been under fire because of its new proposal to expand the playoffs from four to eight teams. Under the new arrangement, the first- and second-place teams would qualify for postseason play. This would make it possible for a second-place team to win the World Series.

The traditionalists insist this would destroy the purity of the 162-game championship season. Yet in the other major professional sports, almost half the teams qualify for the playoffs. More often than not, the team that wins the NBA championship or the Super Bowl doesn't have the best won-lost record. Yet I hear no complaints. Baseball, obviously, is judged by a higher standard.

The baseball moguls should be delighted, that the purity of their game is held above all others. I, too, am a purist, or was, and expressed dismay in 1969 when the American and National Leagues each split into two divisions. It now would be possible for a team with a lesser record to win the pennant. When it happened four years later, nobody noticed.

The baseball bashers also have entered a companion grievance. In a recent Sports Illustrated cover story, we were advised baseball is without heroes. You know the song, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Also, there have been no successors to Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, etc.

It's nonsense. We cannot put an accurate fix on the hero quotient. I am inclined to believe that Nolan Ryan, Cecil Fielder and Ryne Sandberg, among others, will be celebrated in the halls of time. But historical judgments can be made only by the next generation.

Jack Kuenster, a long-ago traveling baseball writer and for many years since the editor of Baseball Digest, reacted with amusement when he saw the Sports Illustrated story. A diamond bibliophile, Kuenster laughed and said, "That same story was written in 1930 and again in 1960. I'll send you a Xerox."

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