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How to save baseball from itself

By Randy Horick

APRIL 12, 1999:  It might have eluded you amid all the recent hoo-ha about McGwire and Sosa, or the monumental success of the Yankees, or the pennant fever that seized Chicago, but baseball is diseased.

At least that's the word from the scribes and analysts, who have observed the writing inscribed on the outfield wall and spread the alarm faster than Roger Clemens can deliver a high hard one.

Before Mac and Sammy had even taken their first official swings of the new season, before Albert Belle had alienated a single Baltimore fan, before Kevin Brown's family had flown their first free junket on the Dodgers' private jet, the pundits already were describing a vision of doom. Their collective clucking drowned out all the cheers on opening day, and they're now busily clamoring for some grand but unspecified solution.

Economics, the experts warn, is imposing a rigid and relentless class stratification upon the grand old game. The revenue-rich, large-market teams like the Yankees--who can afford a payroll of $85 million--will only get richer. Small-market teams like Montreal--whose player salaries total a comparatively puny $17 million--might as well begin the season 20 games out of the lead, for all their chances of reaching the playoffs.

According to this analysis, fans of franchises in baseball's underclass will become increasingly disenfranchised. They'll stop plunking down money to watch luckless losers. Eventually, the cancer will spread, and even the healthy organs will be affected by the tumors elsewhere in the body.

Most ominously, the Cassandras envision a cataclysm of Old Testament proportions after baseball's current labor agreement expires in 2001: another attempt by pig-headed owners to impose a salary cap; another pitched battle with players bent on bleeding every possible dollar from the market; another tanked season; another backlash so intense that fans will forget about Saddam and Slobo and call for airstrikes against the playpens of Bud, George, and Marge.

Or, here's another, slightly different scenario for the 2002 season: Aided by fan-friendly, hitter-friendly new ballparks opening everywhere, baseball attendance reaches an all-time high. They're packing 'em in even in Detroit and Milwaukee, whose stadiums once were so empty that virtually no home-run balls there were touched by human hands before bouncing off the bleachers.

Both at home and on the road, the fourth-place Cardinals play before sellout crowds, who have come to see McGwire (who by now needs only three more 50-homer seasons to surpass Hank Aaron) and the game's best all-around player, J.D. Drew.

With a team payroll scarcely higher than Randy Johnson's annual salary, even the bottom-feeding Florida Marlins exceed expectations with an exciting young team.

Here's why:

There exists a precedent for this disparity between the elite and the rabble. Between 1949 and 1964, the Yankees owned baseball, winning 14 American League pennants and nine World Series.

For most of that era, franchises in Philadelphia and Cleveland were lifeless. The White Sox were punchless. The Cubs were hopeless, but with heroes like Ernie Banks, their fans loyally attended anyway.

Never was the sport more dominated by an exalted few. Yet we remember the '50s and early '60s as a golden age for baseball, when it really was the national pastime.

Sure, there's far more competition from other sports today. Yet I suspect that baseball's health will remain robust.

McGwire and Ken Griffey have shown that stars can pull in fans even without a stellar team. The Rockies have proven that new stadiums (five more will open by next year) can attract fans to see losing clubs. Interleague play and the expanded playoff format have helped create new fan interest and new rivalries.

If they really want to improve baseball, Bud Selig and the owners should forget about a salary cap (which isn't exactly charging over the hill to rescue the NBA). Instead, they should immediately adopt this five-point plan.

1. Import some Fidelismo. The recent exhibition between the Baltimore Orioles and a Cuban all-star team in Havana illuminated one glaring deficiency from the yanqui game: real passion. In Cuba, baseball matters. The sport is imbedded deeply in the culture. (During the revolution, Castro's stature as a leader was greatly enhanced because he was a formidable pitcher.)

Cuban fans bang drums and shout. They hang on every pitch. They relish a defense-oriented, base-to-base game that resembles the style of play in the old Negro leagues.

If he learned anything from his trip to Havana, Commissioner Bud should push to bring to the major leagues but some of the excitement of Cuban beisbol. Add more exhibitions. Play a few regular season games on the island, as the Padres and Rockies did in Mexico. After the World Series ends, consider a Series of the Americas, pitting U.S. major leaguers against teams from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Venezuela.

Who knows? Through baseball diplomacy, Havana might someday host a big-league franchise. Meanwhile, if U.S. fans can be exposed to their counterparts from Latin America, some of the excitement is bound to rub off.

2. Lighten up a little. Along with witnessing a triple play, the end to George Brett's famous hit streak, and three homers by George Bell on opening day (still a record), one of my fondest baseball memories is the sight of Goose Gossage milking a cow as part of a Farm & Ranch Night contest between games of a double-header. Somehow, I can't imagine such an undignified event today.

Baseball, however, might profit from a little more of the fan-friendly, slightly whacky ambiance of the bush leagues, just as the Sounds and Predators have reaped rewards from understanding that entertainment entails more than watching the game.

Think how much fun the All-Star festivities would be if the pitchers could hurl baseballs at a dunk tank containing George Will or endomorphic ump Bruce Froemming? As a complement to the home run derby, how about a best of 10 at fungo shagging with Jose Canseco, Pete Incaviglia, and Ryan Klesko, three outfielders who can turn the most routine fly ball into physical comedy worthy of Chaplin.

3. Keep teams together. These days, the player who spends his entire career with one team is rarer than a trial lawyer with a conscience. Not surprisingly, one constant fan complaint is that it's difficult to build loyalties when their favorite players keep jumping to new clubs via free agency.

Baseball could greatly reduce that problem by adopting a practice similar to the NBA's: Teams could keep their free agents by matching (or exceeding by five percent) offers of other clubs. The players would still make out like Butch and Sundance. But turnover might shrink, teams would become more stable, and fans with money to spend would feel more attached to their teams.

4. Make deadbeat owners field competitive teams. Boys, figure out how to share revenues in ways that level the field for small-market clubs. Meanwhile, stop whining about unprofitability when the value of each franchise appreciates by tens of millions each year.

For the health of baseball, any owner whose team payroll is less than 50 percent of the league average should be required either to ante up or sell out. Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Florida, take note.

5. Please, please, please, figure out some way to make games shorter. By the time you sit through a game with six pitching changes, 12 mound conferences, and 85 trips to the rosin bag, you could have watched Gone With the Wind. Twice.

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