What to do about baseball?

Apr 24, 2002 at 12:00 am

Lots of sentimental nonsense has been written about baseball. Some of it is even true. There are many people, not all of them sportswriters, who couldn’t tell you anything about the French-born essayist Jacques Barzun except that he said “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

There’s something to that, or was. Baseball is the most purely American game, and the only major sport where history is at least as important as the present. There are thousands of middle-aged men and even women around town who know far more about the 1968 Tigers than the present team.

That would be true even if today’s players weren’t a sorry lot of losers. Like nearly everything important, baseball is also full of contradictions, one of which is that it is both private enterprise and a public trust. Detroiters, many of whom are poor, voted in 1994 to ante up at least $40 million to help build a new stadium for billionaire team-owner Mike Ilitch. The state threw in $55 million.

Detroit, in fact, is bound up with major-league baseball more than most places. The city and the American League took off at almost exactly the same time. When Henry Ford and his Model T were the hottest properties on the planet, the Tigers and Ty Cobb were winning pennants, outraging the meek and making headlines. The Tigers warmed the city by winning world championships during the Great Depression, at the end of World War II and right after the devastating 1967 civil disturbance, aka riot.

But everything is different now. If Barzun is still paying attention to baseball, he might conclude that America is a paranoid schizophrenic with cancer.

Baseball is a bloody mess, and if major surgery doesn’t fix things soon, Comerica Park eventually may be an empty shell, notable mainly for offering the world’s best panoramic view of a set of artfully placed, largely abandoned downtown buildings.

Locally, the short-term picture is perfectly clear. For the first time ever, the team has had eight losing seasons in a row. Hope springs eternal, and all that, but it ought to be obvious to a chimp that the Detroit Tigers are headed for another perfectly awful season.

The tendency is to blame Mike Ilitch Inc. Indeed, the family clearly has made some boneheaded moves, and the little caesar seems to have all the public-relations savvy of a really boneheaded late Roman emperor. Yet that’s not the real problem.

Even if they were run superbly and pizza boy opened his wallet wide, the Tigers might not be able to compete, ever again. The game has been distorted beyond recognition by greed, money and what amounts to a parody of laissez-faire capitalism.

What this means is that only a very few teams with huge resources can seriously compete anymore. The problem is not that Alex Rodriguez can get someone to pay him $252 million for a 10-year contract. According to Bob Costas, whose book Fair Ball is the best analysis of what’s wrong with the sport, the real problem is that A-Rod’s contract is worth more than the entire value of more than half of all 30 teams!

You don’t have to be a commie to see seriously wrong in that picture. This means that most teams — including, almost certainly, the Tigers — can’t even think about bidding for the services of a big-name, franchise player.

If someone great comes up through the farm system, the odds are good the Tigers will lose him as soon as he can become a free agent.

And other teams are in much worse shape than Detroit. Several are actually talking about going out of business — something that hasn’t happened in more than a century. Two would have been eliminated this year, but the courts stepped in.

So instead, the other owners themselves bought one of the teams, the Montreal Expos … and helped the previous owner buy another team. If that sounds cockeyed, it is. Frankly, one of the biggest problems is that the governing structure of baseball is fundamentally corrupt, and I don’t use that word lightly.

For most of baseball history, the sport was presided over by an independent commissioner who had vast powers. But the owners rebelled 10 years ago and installed one of their own, “Bud” Selig, a car dealer who owns the Milwaukee Brewers, as commissioner. This is exactly like a manager also serving as umpire.

Not long after Selig became acting commissioner, he borrowed $3 million from the owner of the Minnesota team, a man who now wants baseball to buy him out and shut down his franchise. Talk about conflict of interest.

Anyway, according to Selig, 25 of the 30 teams lost money last year and the sport is $4 billion in the hole. That wouldn’t be all that surprising, given the tendency of some owners to spend as though they were the Pentagon.

Those figures are suspect, however, since the collective bargaining agreement with the players is up. They technically could go on strike before the season is over, or face a lockout next year. If either happens, that could kill the game as we know it.

Many fans, after all, have never forgiven baseball for the 1994 strike.

What’s needed is some sort of sanity, involving a salary cap (Costas suggests a paltry $10 million a year) and a playoff system that makes championships meaningful and allows kids of all ages to feel attachment to a team again.

There was a time when, even if the Tigers weren’t competitive, Detroiters would go just to see Al Kaline or Willie Horton. We don’t have that anymore. And if we don’t get something like that back, I think the sport is doomed.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]