Baseball will not survive

Posted: Jul 05, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--The All-Star Game approaches, the players union is about to set a date for a strike. Barry Bonds is wrong. Baseball will not survive it. How do I know? Because if the players do strike, they may one day come back. But I will not. And if baseball loses me, there will be no one else left. I have been a baseball fan since I was 6. I can still tell you the starting lineup on the 1960 New York Yankees. Growing up in Montreal, I kept a transistor radio under my pillow so I could surreptitiously listen to Yankee night games broadcast from a tiny station in Plattsburgh, N.Y. I spent just about every free hour of my childhood playing ball. Thirty years later, I fall asleep to ESPN's ``Baseball Tonight'' (10 p.m., or even better, the midnight update). And I still read the box scores. There are not too many fans like me left. The younger generation has no interest in baseball. They play soccer. They watch football. My son, himself once a fine Little League pitcher, finds it quaint that the old geezer sits around watching players adjust their batting gloves, britches and private parts--with the occasional interruption for a hack at a pitch. If baseball loses me, it has lost its best customer. In fact, my brother, another lifelong fan, quit on baseball after the 1994 strike. Never went to another game. On principle. I gave baseball one last chance. And this is it. If the players strike this time--ruin the season, cancel the World Series, and, once again, devalue the game--not only am I not going back. I am going to root for its total collapse, for Major League Baseball to disappear. I like the game, and it will survive in some form. Somewhere in this favored land, kids will still play Little League. Pros will play in the Caribbean and in Japan. And here we'll still watch the Cape Cod leaguers. But the zillion-dollar-a-year professionals? It would be poetic justice if this, the ninth baseball strike, finally did in the major leagues and left the golden-goose-killing players unemployed and unemployable. Unlike all the other major sports, baseball is totally controlled by the players. The most successful sport, professional football, has a salary cap, full revenue sharing, and not surprisingly, great competitive balance. The baseball union will have none of this. Baseball has no competitive balance. Half of the teams go into Opening Day knowing they do not have a chance. Indeed, they function as farm teams for the richer ones. As soon as a star emerges on, say, Kansas City or Montreal, he gets snapped up with a Giambi-size boatload of big-market cash. The game, already in steep decline and near contraction, is slowly dying. Attendance is down. Interest is nil. (Tune into sports talk radio. They will talk about anything--the NFL draft, women's basketball, why, even soccer--before they'll talk about baseball.) Even the new stadiums are empty. So a commission of disinterested outsiders made the sensible and modest proposal of a moderate ``luxury'' tax (on the rich teams' higher salaries) and more revenue sharing. The union is willing to kill the season to prevent that. And the players are not even asked to give up their ultimate salary booster, arbitration, which makes any idiot owner's overpayment of one player the legal basis for overpaying all the rest. The players have it made. And they're ready to strike to keep it that way. They think that the fans will let them get away with it. Again. ``It's entertainment,'' said Bonds. ``It will come back. A lot of companies go on strike, not just baseball. And people still ride the bus.'' But baseball is not just any company. People don't root for Intel or Sunkist Raisins. One more strike and people will be rudely confronted with the utter silliness of caring one way or the other about Barry Bonds Inc. The players don't seem to understand that they have peculiar skills of limited marketability. Throwing a ball 95 miles an hour has few industrial applications. If the players betray us again, it will be gratifying to see pitchers who might have made $5 million a year pumping gas at the local Exxon. Bonds was asked by the Post whether he felt fans could empathize with players who are making an average of $2.4 million. ``It's not my fault you don't play baseball.'' Bonds said empathetically. It won't be ours if you don't either, Bud.