Baseball Is Increasingly A Game For The Rich And Famous.
By Jeff Smith
APRIL 12, 1999: I DON'T KNOW what they paid Michael Jordan when he forsook basketball for baseball back in 1994, but if it was anything over minimum wage it was too much. Better yet, Jordan should have paid them to let him act out his childhood fantasy.
Same with Garth Brooks, only more.
Most of you have heard of Garth: not the baseball player Garth, but the chubby country singer in the tight Wranglers. Frankly, I worry about Garth and those Wranglers. I know he wants to look onstage like he's buff enough and tough enough to rassle steers, but vanity is a dangerous thing. He wears his pants so tight he's risking losing circulation to his nuts. Does he want to sound like Vince Gill?
I digress. I continue to digress: One of the good things about baseball, sort of, is they wear those stupid-looking double-knit pants. They look skin-tight--which no doubt pleases Brooks--but they give when a guy moves, which may allow him to continue his breeding program.
I'm through digressing.
Garth Brooks, the San Diego Padre spring training rookie, is only able to wear those stretchy double-knits and take his cuts at the big league curve-ball because he's extremely famous and obscenely rich. That's the reason the Padres organization is willing to suffer the fool, but that's insufficient reason. Since the dawn of time there have been men with fame and wealth beyond the ken of the folks in the cheap seats, and since the dawn of professional sports there have been examples of arrested development, aging adolescents, who fantasized about being heroes of the baseball diamond. Or whatever. Be that as it may, until quite recently--until the Jordan fiasco--merely dreaming about being a major league baseball player, and having name-ID on a par with Madonna and money on a par with Donald Trump, wouldn't get you into the show.
Now it will.
And it is symptomatic of contemporary popular culture, and its obsession with too much cash and too much publicity, that baseball fans have not pitched a class-nine shit-fit.
When Michael Jordan "retired" from the NBA to become a third-rate outfielder on a second-rate MLB farm club, my reaction was, "What the hell does he think he's doing and why the hell is baseball indulging him?"
My initial suspicions were pretty much what proved out in subsequent observation--that when you've got Mike's money and rep you can do whatever you wish--but my suspicions and those of most of us were tempered by the man's athletic prowess. Hey. He must be a major-league caliber baseball player.
Well he wasn't, and his season in the bush leagues demonstrated that if his name hadn't been Michael Jordan he wouldn't have been kept around long enough to compile even his pitiful batting average.
But nobody bitched. Everybody wants to be like Mike. Everybody likes Mike. Everybody wants to see what Mike can do, even if he does it with mediocrity. I would not at that time have predicted the same level of patience and acceptance for Garth Brooks, despite the man's huge, crossover popularity with country music fans and their pop counterparts.
My powers as a cultural seer obviously are failing me. Looking back now, not just at baseball and Jordan and Brooks, but at the absolute power of wealth and fame, I can see that American culture no longer cares for other standards of excellence, other criteria of qualification.
How about Steve Forbes? Remember the mega-dweeb of the '96 presidential primaries? He had one half-baked policy notion and that was the flat tax. He had the charm and lively intellect of a eunuch caught between autism and Alzheimer's. Ah, but he had his father's money. Billions, some said. So America took him seriously.
Here was a man who couldn't get a date for a drink in a Tijuana whorehouse, and not only did he not get laughed off the dais during the early presidential debates, he got enough support that he'll be back at it again in 2000.
Well, if Steve Forbes, the candidate, surprised me, he shouldn't have. Ronald Reagan, the president, was cut from the same bolt of goods.
And now we've got Garth Brooks pretending to play baseball and the San Diego Padres pretending he's playing baseball, and America's baseball fans not even pretending it's this ludicrous joke.
Because maybe it isn't. Maybe we've stumbled onto an answer to this seemingly out-of-control cost spiral in major league sports and entertainment.
Since it's all about the Benjamins anyway, why not allow, nay, encourage, anyone with the yen to play and the yen to pay, to suit up and take the field?
True, the level of athleticism will suffer, but the drawing power of skilled athletes will be replaced by the equal box-office appeal of equally famous celebrities, performing in public in unaccustomed and often amusing situations. And surely they'd work for less than, say, that pitcher Brown, who left the Padres just as Garth Brooks was wiggling into his tight pants. You might even get somebody like Tom Hanks to pay good money to get a crack at the Bigs. Or at least to work for scale.
And to fill out a roster, without bankrupting the front-office, you could recruit guys of the Steve Forbes school. Take their money, park them on the bench, let them out in right field for the bottom of the ninth with a 10-run lead. And fill the stands with draws like Pamela Anderson at shortstop, Tom Selleck at first--you get the drift.
After a few seasons of fantasy baseball, perhaps the real players will tire enough of operating their fried chicken franchises and coin-op laundries that they'll be willing to come back and play ball for something less than $100 million for six years. Perhaps the fans will find enough encouragement in $5 tickets that they'll support the game the way they did before television invaded with all its advertising money and screwed everything up.
Perhaps they'll be sick, by then, of hearing Mark McGwire sing love songs, or watching Sammy Sosa play Othello.
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