At a time when the economy is teetering on the brink, we all need our escapes -- our “bread and circuses.” Here in America, looking at the last century as a whole, nothing has filled that role better than Major League Baseball.
I remember watching baseball practically from the time I was born. My dad used to take me to what is now called the R.F.K. Stadium to watch the Senators play – but this was back when RFK was still alive, so it was simply called the D.C. Stadium. I remember my dad going down to dugouts and talking to ballplayers, including future Hall of Famer and Detroit Tiger great, Al Kaline. I also remember him driving hours out of the way to show me the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and taking me to ball games in as many stadiums as possible, including the beautiful Chavez Ravine in L.A. My most memorable trip was back in 1969 when my parents and I woke up one morning in South Dakota and then drove all day to Bloomington, Minnesota in order to catch a twi-night double header. In one of those games, the Twins’ Rod Carew tied the Major League record by stealing home for the seventh time in one season. That record was never broken, but at least Carew’s exploits were able to help build my lifelong love for the Minnesota Twins. Decades later, I traveled to Orlando to see them in Spring Training (this was in 1987, the first year they won the World Series) and then, nine years later, I named my dog after the Twins’ legendary center fielder, Kirby Puckett.
Now that my father is no longer with us, it is particularly difficult for me to think of baseball without thinking of him. He loved to watch me play little league ball, even after my athleticism slowed up and I went from short, to second … to washed up. He enjoyed regaling me with tales of his beloved Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where he used to sneak in through a hole in a fence and watch “’Da Bums” play for free. My dad was a very gentle and sweet-hearted guy, but being an old Dodger fan, he could always appreciate the right of working class fans to pay their money and heckle the big leaguers. He used to enjoy the heckling almost as much as the baseball.
I literally couldn’t hold back my tears when I took my dad back to Brooklyn a few years before he died in 2002 at the age of 90. We were driving to his alma mater, Brooklyn College, when we passed the grounds of what used to be Ebbets Field. In its place was a big, ugly apartment complex. Gazing at that monstrosity, and reflecting on the death of the Brooklyn Dodgers (no self-respecting Brooklynite rooted for that franchise once it abandoned the East Coast), I was overwhelmed by my father’s own mortality. But those tears turned to laughter when, a little while later, I took my dad to a screening of The Hank Greenberg Story. Hank, who hit 58 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1938, was by far the greatest Jewish slugger of all time. Given my dad’s Jewish-consciousness and his lifelong love for baseball, I figured Greenberg must have been a real hero to him back in the day.
“You must have loved Hank Greenberg,” I said, matter-of-factly, as we left the theatre.
“Not really,” dad replied, leaving the theatre. “He didn’t play for my team.”
All I could do was chuckle and nod my head. Spoken like a real fan.
In light of the above, you can probably tell that writing the title of this blogpost is not something I would do lightly. I had been looking forward to this season from the moment that my Twins were defeated 1-0 by the White Sox after they tied atop the American League Central last year (a game I watched alone at a bar). Still, at some point, even a die-hard fan has to take a stand against the mismanagement of a sports league. For lovers of baseball, that time is long overdue.
Here we are, mired in a grievous recession, and Major League Baseball is till partying like its 1999. The ever-wealthy Yankees think nothing of identifying the best free agent on the market each year and offering up a contract north of $20 million annually. Meanwhile, the poor franchises are permitted to spend virtually nothing on their entire squad and thereby pocket incredible profits; apparently, there have always been suckers who go to games in Kansas City even though the franchise could give a rats ass about winning.
The sad truth is that the Barons of the Game simply don’t care about the competitiveness of their league. At a time when basketball and football have imposed a salary cap, baseball has nothing of the sort. The sport’s “luxury tax” is a joke – it amounts to nothing more than the Yankees paying $20 or $30 million back to the rest of the league every season, so that these other teams can descend on the money like vultures. But the Yankees continue to reap stratospheric revenues, and the vultures reap stratospheric income (given their low-costs), so it’s a win-win situation for everyone – everyone, that is, except for the fans of teams in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota, San Diego … You get the idea.
You’d think from what I’ve said that baseball would be struggling – that the natives would be restless. Well, baseball’s owners anticipated the problems that would ensue from a lack of a salary cap/salary floor, and they found the perfect solution: record-breaking superstars! Who can forget the great Sosa v. McGuire duel of 1998. Or Barry Bonds’ Homeric hoists into San Francisco Bay. Each of them had their own adorable little gesture after they hit their majestic shots, or rounded the bases. When all was said and done, Bonds had shattered the single-season record that McGuire had set just a few years before, and the most coveted individual record in all of sports: the all-time (career) homerun crown. Both of those records had stood for decades.
Unfortunately for the game, the fans wouldn’t celebrate Bonds the way they celebrated Sosa, McGuire, or this generation’s best pitcher – Roger “the Rocket” Clemons. With Bonds, fans could no longer suspend their disbelief. It had become clear that this super-star was super-juiced. With the others, we all had our suspicions … but those suspicions were unconfirmed, and we were hungry for heroes.
Gradually, though, all the truth is coming out. It’s now common knowledge not only that ALL of this generation’s most hyped players (including each of the above names) were taking performance-enhancing drugs, but that the baseball owners have known about the general extent of this problem and simply didn’t want to stop the goose that lays the golden eggs. Juiced up fireballers and sluggers were supplying the fans with the same kind of pick-me-up that the anti-Semitic pogroms provided the czars; they kept the fans/peasants happy, so that they could ignore the economic realities of the situation. One of those realities, in the case of baseball, is that zombied baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been “earning” a salary of more than $18 million a year. Can you imagine? We fans are footing that bloated bill for a guy who has done nothing more than let the foxes run loose in the hen house.
For me, the last straw was the report that while 104 players have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, those test results will be kept confidential. Cheaters-rights must be some sort of time-honored concept in Bud-ball. Fortunately, though, someone leaked the names of one of the 104 players: Alex Rodriguez. That’s right, the heir apparent to Barry Bonds’ record is no longer A Rod, he’s now A-Fraud. It was cute to see him admit to his drug use only after his name was leaked – and two years after he categorically denied ever taking performance enhancing drugs during a 60 Minutes interview. The funniest part of the recent “admission” was that rather than identifying the performance enhancing drug he’d been taking, he claimed that he couldn’t remember exactly what drug that was. “To be quite honest,” A-Fraud said, “I don't know exactly what substance I was guilty of using."
It’s mystifying, but I’d bet you some fans actually believe that last statement. Keep in mind that at the time he tested positive for ‘roids, A-Fraud had just signed a contract worth approximately one quarter of a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money – even to Bud Selig. Something tells me, A Fraud knew – and still does know – the juice he was swallowing or shooting into his veins.
I have heard public rumors that officials with the baseball union tipped off players as to when they would be drug tested so that they could continue to take steroids with impunity. Such tip-offs would be despicable, to be sure, but I will continue to give the union the benefit of the doubt until the story is confirmed. Nevertheless, I most certainly have had it with the players, the union, and the owners. In the name of all the baseball fans in cities where the fans are being cheated out of a competitive club because the owners won’t require a hard salary cap and floor … in the name of people like my dad who truly cared about the baseball records that had once stood the test of time … and in honor of the principle that spectator sports ultimately belong to the fans who are footing the bills, it’s high time to take a stand. Let’s send a message to the corrupt players and the greedy owners. Let’s send a message in the only place they care about: their wallets. Let’s show them that if they won’t police the sport, we will. Let’s boycott the sport beginning NOW.
How long should the boycott last? Between now and the end of the World Series? Merely through the regular season? Or should we end it after the All-Star break? On that point, I am undecided. I’m a junky too, remember. But at a minimum, until the mid-summer classic, and probably even longer, I can promise you that I will neither watch nor listen to games -- not at the stadiums, not on TV, and not on the radio. I won’t buy MLB memorabilia either. I urge you to do the same.
And ladies – if you’re not baseball fans, you can play a role too. When you catch your hubbies watching baseball, treat it like pornography. Deny them sex for two weeks. That will let them know that while you might not know much about 4-6-3 double plays or hits-plus-walks ratios, you know what it means to cheat people out of money. Baseball fans have been cheated for too long. Working together, we might be able to clean this crap up, or at least stop serving as enablers.