Nothing Never Hurts It?


Washington. -- This year major-league baseball's owners revamped the two leagues into three divisions, adding an extra round of post-season play, so more teams would play meaningful September games. Said one owner, "Before, in September, Michigan played Notre Dame and baseball was relegated to the back of the sports section."

The owners fixed that. This Saturday Notre Dame plays Michigan and baseball is not in the back pages. It has disappeared. It will return someday, but never will be what it was.

Both owners and players are broadly disdained by fans increasingly disinclined to regard baseball as oxygen -- essential. But fans, at first marginally partial to the owners' side, increasingly understand that the owners, or a controlling cabal of them, are the aggressors, demanding large changes in the status quo of baseball's compensation system, and that the players struck defensively to avoid unilateral imposition of changes by ownership.

Since the strike started, the owners, who say their straitened circumstances justify demanding that players accept a "salary cap," have been unable to agree among themselves about how many teams are losing money, or to argue plausibly that baseball as a whole is. Baseball's last expansion fee was $95 million per team, and will be higher next time. To economists, that sum represents the discounted present value of the anticipated profits stream, which can hardly be negative.

The players see the salary cap as injurious to a hard-won right, that of free agency. By striking, they are absorbing financial losses they will never recoup, in order to protect the future earnings of subsequent generations. The owners have overworked one pedal on their organ -- the fact that the average major league salary is $1.2 million. But the median salary is $410,000, and because there are seven times more minor leaguers than major leaguers (the minor league minimum salary is $700 a month for a five-month season), the median salary of professional baseball players probably is less than $10,000 a year.

The owners, having waited until late to submit the provocative -- and shopworn -- salary-cap idea, and having changed their internal rules to allow any eight owners to block a settlement, evidently want a long strike. But what then? Here's what.

This season and post-season probably are lost. Advertisers and fans are finding other interests. The off-season, with its trades and talk, is more important to baseball than any other sport. It is called the "hot stove league" because it contributes to the conversation that is so central to the baseball fan's fun. This winter the stove will be stone cold. Baseball is completing its ruinous transformation into just another entertainment option. Note the word that is the root of the word "optional."

The national pastime is partaking of the national carelessness about the conservation of institutions. Baseball's travails are not as important as the abuses of, say, courts and universities, but they are illustrative of a generic frivolousness.

Columnist Leonard Koppett, one of baseball's wisest chroniclers, notes this attention-getting arithmetic: Assume, realistically, that baseball sells 70 million tickets a year, and assume, conservatively, that the average customer makes five ballpark visits. That means 14 million North Americans actually go to games -- and 256 million don't.

Some entertainment, such as major television programming, is of potential interest to the general population. Baseball isn't. It is supported by baseball fans, who are sustained by their sense that baseball is special. That sense is rooted in the feeling that although the sport is a business, it also is part of the rhythm of their lives and the fabric of their nation's history. This is why the involvement of baseball fans with their sport is different, in kind and intensity, from the involvement of people with professional football and basketball.

Bob Costas of NBC, who should be baseball commissioner, understands. Baseball, he says, is a pastime, not a spectacle. You can watch an NFL or NBA game for the sheer self-contained spectacle. But in baseball, the sport with the most history and continuity, and in which both matter most, enjoyment is to a considerable extent contingent on a special kind of caring, which derives from the sense of the sport's specialness as an institution.

Baseball's connection with its fans has been remarkably durable, but is not indestructible. As Mr. Costas says, previous discontinuities have bruised the connection, but this one may rupture it. Sparky Anderson, manager of the Detroits (as baseball old-timers say), once observed, "We try every way we can to kill the game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it." Sparky spoke too soon.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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