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Fred's Views

The Grand Old Game

I've been an unwilling union member for most of my working life. And I know that, historically, unions have done about as much as our servicemen in preserving and creating our present way of life. But sometimes unions go too far. Sometimes unions protect those who don't deserve protecting. Sometimes unions just ask for too much.

I'm not going to put all of baseball's problems on the shoulders of the players' union, but it does have to take a lion's share of the blame. With numerous work stoppages over the last decade or so, with salaries higher than McGuire's home runs, and with players bouncing from team to team like yo-yos, baseball just ain't what it used to be - or should be.

I think I have probably attended a Blue Jays' game once since they won the World Series. Admittedly, I really don't like going to the games. I hate having to stand up every five seconds for some drunken fan to stumble over me. I hate the Skydome's cramped seating. I hate the cost of refreshments, I really hate the wave and I hate the cost of parking. And, needless to say, I hate the cost of tickets. But I enjoy watching the game the way I used to on television. Thanks to our small dish, we can now get most of the Blue Jays' games on TV. I don't watch every game, but I watch quite a few.

Over the last ten years or so, we've seen a regular parade of top name pitchers and players pass through the Skydome. Ricky Henderson, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, David Cone, Roger Clemens, Dave Stewart and David Wells to name a few. We've also seen a number of players developed by the Blue Jays move on as well: Fred McGriff, John Olerud and Shawn Green for a start. Every year it seems there are twenty new faces on the twenty-five man roster. By the time you learn a little about a player, he's been traded. I know it probably wasn't much fun for a player in the old days when he might play his entire career for a team or a city he hated. But now, things have gone too far the other way. The fans need some stability. When a decent team gets put together, they don't want to see it torn apart willy nilly. It's hard to develop team loyalty when the team keeps changing almost daily.

It's also hard to develop loyalty for a player that earns more money for a single game than you might earn in a year. This is particularly so if the player does not give 100% on every play. It's easy to slack off when you feel you are mistreated and underpaid, but there isn't a name player today that isn't making more than anyone deserves or needs to make. One of the problems is that money is being used as a measure of a player's ability or self-worth. Players are demanding more and more money not because they "need" more money, but because the money is a symbol. If Joe Blow is making $25 million, then I need $30 million because I'm better than him. And up and up it goes. This money has to come from somewhere. Guess where? Your pocket and mine. Well, my pockets aren't very deep. Not only do I not want to go to the ball park, I couldn't afford to go even if I wanted to.

Even with the high cost of salaries, some owners still have money to burn. Some teams, like New York, can essentially buy a pennant by acquiring more top players than any other team can afford. It's not right, and it also hurts the game.

When you add it all up, it isn't a pretty sight: overpaid players, work stoppages, high prices, players running after the highest bidder, high ticket prices, and on and on. Somewhere, amongst all the money there used to a be a simple game: nine players, a ball, a bat and some gloves. Four stones for bases, an outfield that too often included someone's bedroom window, and fun. This game used to be fun. How can it be fun when you could easily blow a week's wages just to see one game? How can it be fun when everyone seems to be thinking of only one thing: money.

Is that what's wrong with baseball? Has the fun gone? Have players lost sight of why they started playing this game? Or maybe money was always the reason.

After the last work stoppage, fans stayed away from the stadiums in droves. Before 1994, the Skydome had averaged 4 million fans per season for several years. Today, they would be lucky if the average is half that. Of course the calibre of the team is a very important factor. We have had a few decent teams, but no championship teams since 1993. But there's more to it. I'm not the only fan who has become disillusioned. I'm not against a player being well-paid for his talents. I'm certainly not against a player having protection against an injury or a career cut short. And probably the journeyman players are at least slightly underpaid. But the ridiculously high salaries have to go. We need to get back to the days when most players stayed with the same club for most of their careers. We need to go back to the days when a player was traded because another team wanted his talent so badly they were willing to pay handsomely for him, not because his current team wants to dump his high salary. Say what you will about Pete Rose, but baseball needs players like "Charlie Hustle". Baseball also needs to "get real". Gambling is an illness as real and as serious as alcohol or drug abuse. Nobody doubts that Pete Rose, as a manager, crossed the line, and, as a manager, could be barred from baseball and the Hall of Fame. But there is no way that baseball can justify barring him from his rightful place in the Hall of Fame as a player. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that he gambled on games as a player. Even if he did, it was an illness that required treatment, not punishment. Barring him from the Hall of Fame is too high a price to pay for Pete Rose, for baseball or for the fans.

Baseball used to be "America's Pastime". Baseball has probably lost some support from younger fans who don't appreciate the subtle nuances and strategies that are part of the game, preferring more obvious, more frenetic and more superficial pastimes. But there are still a lot of us who look longingly at what baseball used to be and could be again. Forget the money, just play the game.

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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