"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 June 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Eye on the Ball



When baseball legend Joe DiMaggio

died earlier this year, a

million sententious words about

simpler and nobler times

followed him to his grave. If

Paul Simon, currently making

ends meet with an overpriced

tour co-starring Bob Dylan

(rumor has it the two bards will

delight audiences by performing

some of that Paul/Chevy Chase

stage business from the Call Me

Al video), could just get ASCAP

to dun every hack who invoked

his eerily unresonant "Where

have you gone Joe DiMaggio? /

woo woo woo woo woo woo woo woo

woo" lyric, the multicultural

songsmith might be able to pay

down a month or so of his

crippling Capeman debt.


But the game for which DiMaggio

earned his honored place in the

hearts of a nation seems once

again on shaky public ground,

its ability to gin up media

hype, again and again, over

record-breaking occurrences like

the McGwire/Sosa home-run race

notwithstanding. (Hey, Stone

Cold Steve Austin gets on

magazine covers just for being

Stone Cold Steve Austin.) This

time around, however, the

culprit isn't baseball's pokey

pace, we are told to the rhythms

of an agrarian nation (which

might explain why a yeoman

farmer could sow, reap, and make

delicious buns during the

painful crawl from the top of

the first to the bottom of the

ninth). Nor is it the steady

growth of more exciting athletic

contests — you know, sports

in which matches where one side

scores nothing are not

considered desirable specimens.


This season it's becoming clearer

than ever that baseball is

indeed losing the public's

trust, and the usual attempts to

blame it all on rogue players no

longer seem to get across the

plate. All too many Angelenos —

perhaps still reeling from

the way the O'Malley family

betrayed a sacred national trust

by selling the Dodgers to Bond

supervillain Rupert Murdoch —

were ready to believe a

transparent April Fools' hoax

cover story in the New Times,

purporting to reveal the

McGwire/Sosa race as an

owner-rigged PR stunt. As we

re-create World War I in a wave

of nostalgia, why not return to

the halcyon days of the 1919

Black Sox scandal of a fixed

World Series? You have to admit,

it's sort of suspicious how many

recent series conveniently go

the seven-game distance.



If baseball as an institution is

losing our trust, we know who to

turn to for an explanation:

Ralph Nader, the man who

explained our inchoate

uneasiness with auto companies

by describing their products as

deliberately designed death

traps, who destroyed our

innocent admiration for

politicians by pointing out that

they take money from the

wealthy. Nader has of late

focused his attention on the

threat, unconsummated as yet, to

sell advertising space in the

form of small patches on

baseball uniforms.


Little League memories of

Ellenbogan's Meat Market playing

Schneider's Dry Cleaners

notwithstanding, this is

apparently seen by many as a

threat to baseball's integrity.

To be fair, Nader was hardly the

only objector: Needle-necked,

purse-lipped baseball

pantywaists all over the nation

turned out to tag the idea out

(which may be why it now appears

to be benched). NASCAR partisans

can only laugh — the sole

thing keeping drivers from

selling tattoos as ad frontage

is that the camera wouldn't be

able to pick them up clearly

enough. This has not prevented

race-car driving from being a

fanatically favored sport in

what we can euphemize as the "real

America." Soccer, still capable

of inspiring more old-fashioned

fan fervor in its sincerest form —

rioting and hooliganism —

than somnolent old baseball

will ever muster, has survived

the billboardization of

its uniforms. The stadium is

already festooned with

advertising billboards, and

corporate money already

influences the very names of

most stadiums (even though many

sports stadiums glorifying

corporate paymasters leave

taxpayers substantially on the hook).


Both the Bank One Ballpark in

Phoenix and the Tropicana Field

in St. Petersburg enjoyed over

US$100 million in public money

(total government subsidies to

all four major-league sports —

baseball, football, basketball,

and hockey — exceeded

$5 billion in the past

decade alone). But concern over

corporate branding and renaming

of stadiums is already a phony

fastidiousness. Does anyone

think those people honored by

parks like Ebbets Field,

Griffith Stadium, Wrigley Field,

Comiskey Park, etc. were players

or, God forbid, fans ("the real

reason we're all here, y' know,

we can't forget that")? At least

instituting ads on uniforms

would guarantee lots of talk

about baseball outside the

sports pages.



And make no mistake —

baseball desperately needs to

generate these potted

controversies. Everything about

our national conversation on

baseball reveals the poorly concealed

truth: Baseball itself — the

actual playing of the game —

is so patently dull that

passions can only rise over

the compiling and comparing of

statistical minutiae. Endless

carping over ancillary matters

like the designated hitter rule,

real grass versus fake, the

league's antitrust exemption,

whether or not the Commish is a

tool of team owners, league

restructuring, how Murdoch could

so blithely raise the player

salary bar above $100 million —

anything — is more

interesting than actually

watching the pitches, the

scratching, the swings, the

yawns, the catches, the

stretching, the walks.


It's that tenuous hold on the

public's attention span, combined

with the fact that the public's

sport is not as efficiently

cartelized as others, that makes it

difficult for baseball owners to

play the "pay up or I'm leaving"

game with the same ruthless

efficiency as their football

counterparts. But as

demonstrated by George

Steinbrenner's eerie thrall on

the allegedly fiscally conscious

Rudolph Giuliani, owners are by

no means powerless. Blockbuster

magnate Wayne Huizenga, before

finally throwing in the towel,

suggested to Miami that he might

not sell his miraculously World

Series–winning expansion

team, the Marlins, back in 1997

if taxpayers would pony up for a

new stadium with one of those

cool retractable roofs everyone

else is going to be getting. Now

every stadium needs a

retractable roof; in 10 years

the state of the art will

include alligator moats, laser

death rays, and underground

tunnels to secret submarine

bases. And big-city mayors,

eager for the mythical financial

advantages of major league

sports, will be pleased to float

bonds until the next millennium

to pay for them.



There will be the inevitable

carping about misuse of public

monies, but rumors of baseball's

death will remain unfortunately

exaggerated. The sport's

vulnerable moment has passed.

Since the dark no–World

Series year of 1994, the game is

in great financial shape, raking

in bucks from sucker Americans

both at the box office and via

their tax forms. Owners may cry

poverty through accounting of

almost movie-industry

dubiousness, but the value of

franchises are ultimately in the

sale, and no team has sold for

less than it was paid for since

1973. Merchandising revenues —

where the real money is —

continue to soar. Player

salaries also continue to hit

record heights. In its

combination of a commercialism

that strives manfully toward the

crass and quiet subsidy-seeking

that goes way past shameful,

baseball has become what it

pretended to be. Until that

great day when Rollerball

becomes a reality, nothing can

match it for the mantle of

America's game.

courtesy of Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk



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