LOS ANGELES -- The billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard advertises the August 27 release on DVD of the baseball movie "The Rookie," three days before the scheduled strike by Major League Baseball players. This is one instance in which a film trumps the reality of rich ballplayers who want to strike for more money.
"The Rookie" is based on a true story about a guy who loves baseball and perseveres against incredible obstacles until he makes it in the majors. I'm a sucker for baseball movies, not only because they remind me of my youth when I accompanied my dad to Washington Senators games ("first in war, first in peace and last in the American league" was the phrase that mocked these perennial also-rans), but also because baseball perpetuates a wonderful myth about American sport, competition and fair play.
We believed men played this game because they loved it and not for the money. When the Los Angeles Dodgers' ace pitcher Sandy Koufax held out for more money in 1966 - finally winning the princely salary of $130,000 -- some people wondered if the game had been irreparably harmed. Now, $130,000 might be the withholding tax for some of the richer players, who earn far more than Koufax ever did and, in most cases, are not nearly as good.
Baseball is more than a diversion. It is America's game, allowing people of different races and economic backgrounds to gather for a common experience. Now, only the rich can attend. When I was a child, you could get into some major league parks for pocket change, and the hotdogs and the smell of mustard was unique to ballparks. Now, tickets cost so much that an average family of four can hardly afford to attend. Hot dogs cost $5 and the soft drinks are $4, unless you get the large size in a souvenir plastic cup, which adds an extra dollar or two.
Despite high prices for everything, "in less than a decade, baseball's collective debt has grown from $593 million to about $4 billion," notes the L.A. Times. Annual salaries have jumped 71 percent to an average $2.4 million in only five years. The New York Yankees, baseball's richest club, have driven salary inflation. The team's large fan base and "a huge local TV contract" permitted the Yankees "to spend a record $140 million on player salaries this year, putting other teams at an instant disadvantage," the Times notes. Competition among clubs is hurt because if a player shows promise in another town, the Yankees often buy him to keep another team from challenging their pre-eminence.
The prospect of a ninth work stoppage by players since 1972 could force some teams into bankruptcy and turn off fans who will find other ways to spend their sports entertainment dollars. That could be a good thing, because it is clear that players and management no longer care about the people who have made them rich.
I recommend re-connecting with minor league teams, which will not be on strike. Tickets are cheaper and the entire experience is more satisfying.
The Washington Post carried a wonderful story a few days ago about the Aberdeen (Maryland) IronBirds, a minor league team owned by former Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken virtually saved baseball after the last players' strike when his consecutive-games streak brought disgusted fans back to the ballparks.
The story related how Ripken watched a young player on his team and asked to meet with him after the game to share some pointers. The player and Ripken stood on the field and didn't leave until 1 a.m.
When Ripken played, he didn't sell his autograph, as so many others do. He signed his name for free and often waited until the last kid was satisfied. His minor league team, in its first season, sells out its 6,000-plus seats for almost every game. Ripken told the Post: "We grew up in the minor league environment. Everybody pulls together. You see it here with volunteers unfolding the tarp when it rains. We grew up with this feeling and we're proud of it."
Baseball is an attitude. Major League Baseball has developed a bad one. Herbert Hoover said, "Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution." Maybe it's time the fans started looking for a different "church."