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Sports, Crime And Big Bucks


They wanted $300 to rent the Wyman Park Recreation Center's gym for one evening, so the Charles Village Recreation Soccer and T-ball League suddenly needed a venue for its awards banquet and pizza fest.

Once again, the thrill of sports collided with the agony of money.

The intrepid Charles Village organizers' resolve could hardly be questioned. Hadn't they dared to supervise 75 moppets on Saturday mornings? Hadn't they already arranged to take their charges to see the Frederick Keys, an affordable route to the national pastime?

All of this is by way of examining America's occasional unwillingness to be fleeced in the name of sport and character building.

We may not have a movement here, of course. Overcharge us and we will come. Take away the World Series, overpay college coaches, recruit convicted criminals and we can still be there in a New York minute.

Resistance may be on the rise, but proof of the demand for big sports at any cost is everywhere.

A decade of efforts to de-emphasize championships was no bar to Florida State's offer of a $50,000 bonus to coach Bobby Bowden if he won the national title.

George Washington University recruited Richie Parker, a New York City basketball player convicted of sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl in a high school staircase.

When its actions met severe criticism from students and alumni, GW first sought to turn down the volume by offering the young woman, now a high school junior, a scholarship of her own. Estimated value of each grant: $100,000.

Was this an example of the university as correctional institution? Was its generosity an investment, a reflection of the money to be made with winning basketball teams?

GW's president, Stephen J. Trachtenberg, finally announced that "regrettably," the recruiting of this young man would stop. He did this as the university's trustees were convening a special meeting to get an answer to this question posed by the board's new chairman: "What is going on here, Steve?"

The university said its scholarship offer to the young woman would be honored "contingent upon her academic performance." This is the honorable course. But one wonders if the performance standards she faces will be as low as those for promising hoop stars.

The great Penn State football coach Joe Paterno once observed that college sports had raped an entire generation of young black athletes. His observation set off a round of reform. Some progress was made.

But the hunger of fans for winners and excitement does not die: Two other schools previously recruited the same athlete GW pursued before similar outrage backed them off.

The New York Yankees' owner,George Steinbrenner, signed Darryl Strawberry, who was recently convicted of tax evasion and undergoing treatment for drug dependency. One year's salary: $850,000.

Strawberry was sent off to the Rookie League for conditioning, but again, not everyone wanted to cooperate.

Detroit's general manager, Joe Klein, ordered his team to walk Strawberry each time he batted. He contends that the eight-time National League All-Star should not be playing in a league where some of his opponents are only 17 years old.

"I guess I'm guilty," Mr. Klein said. "I hope the next time we face him, he walks five times again. He's not going to hurt any of my players, especially any of our pitchers, with a line drive through the middle."

Mr. Klein was at least endorsing Mr. Steinbrenner's baseball instincts: Mr. Klein thinks Darryl can still hit. If the general manager had any thoughts about the player's drug use and attitudes toward taxes, he didn't mention them.

Sports loves to sell redemption, on the field and off. Everyone loves a struggler against adversity and demons of every sort. As fans and as human beings, we are drawn to the trials of genius athletes on the brink of financial ruin, wasted talent and personal pain. We love the controversy, the thrill oftheir balancing -- games within the games. We will pay for the buzz.

The University of Maryland's athletic department announced last week that it would require season ticket holders to join the Terrapin Club, a booster organization that picks up the school's athletic schol

arship bills, or most of them. The fund has a $1 million deficit.

To the cost of a season pass, now add at least $100.

"I don't like having $100 extorted out of me," Steven Dyal, a devoted fan, told The Sun. "But I can't stop going. I'm going to pay the bounty. Icalled last week to order the tickets."

Still, at the margins, some are saying, "Keep the tickets."

Major-league baseball fans have stayed away in substantial numbers even from Camden Yards, where the owner, Peter Angelos, refused to hire replacement players during the recent strike and where the shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr., said he wouldn't cross a picket line to maintain his consecutive-games streak. Even if their principles are admired, their game is moving out of our league.

Last Sunday, the Charles Village contingent helped to sell out the stadium in Frederick. A steel band played at the single entrance gate where kids in uniform entered free and adults paid $5. Bowie's Baysox are doing well, too. And Salisbury is getting a team next year.

The scale of the game at this level is a bit more manageable and the game is more like the gritty, dusty game we remember. A good deal of subplotting here, too, by the way: Which of these tyros will make it to the Bigs? We could get hooked on this!

The soccer and T-ball players had their fete Thursday evening. Organizers first found a neighborhood church that would provide a room for $200 -- and then another with free space if the date could be moved back from Friday to Thursday. Done in a Charles Village minute.

Capitalists of the world, beware: The marketplace lives.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

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