- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

For millions of Americans, the time may have passed for the national pastime, and under the current circumstances it's about time. In fact, for many of us fed up with the childish wrangling among multimillionaires, the Aug. 30 deadline set by players for a strike can't come soon enough.
With the economy still sputtering, the stock market trying to decide whether it is a bear or a bull, terrorist alerts every whip-stitch and the seemingly never-ending debate about Iraq, who besides sportswriters and talk-show hosts and statistic nuts has time to be concerned about the alleged problems of baseball players who average $2.5 million a year and greedy billionaire owners who constantly want bigger and better stadiums at taxpayer expense?
Just play the game and shut up, for crying out loud.
Surveys reveal that is the attitude among an increasing number of once-loyal fans whose patience has worn thin and who are substituting less expensive activities for an afternoon or evening of baseball, where costs can easily top $100 and that's if one has only a beer and a hot dog and sits in the cheap seats.
A few years ago, a business acquaintance offered me a ticket to an early spring game, and I accepted. When I arrived at the stadium, I showed the ticket to an usher, who motioned me up to the next level. By the time I stopped moving upward, I had reached the very top of the stadium and the players warming up looked like the proverbial ants. I really couldn't tell which team was which without watching one of the gigantic television monitors.
I finally glanced at the ticket price and was astonished to see that it was a $10 seat, reserved for the diehard adults and children who just liked being at a ballgame. I asked the person next to me what it would cost to be able to actually see the game. He had two youngsters in tow.
"Oh, anywhere from $30 to who knows how much," he said, smiling. "We just come to be part of the experience. We couldn't afford to get much closer on a regular basis what with the high price of parking and food and so on."
This latest fight between players and owners revolves around such issues as drug testing and steroid use and wealth sharing and how many rounds will be in the draft and so forth. It has nothing to do with baseball's soul the fans without whom the game can't survive.
The revenue-sharing matter is most symptomatic of baseball's long-term problems. The game is dramatically overbuilt and the salaries are insane. Unless the large markets help the small ones, marginal franchises, which probably shouldn't have been awarded in the first place, are going to be bankrupt, and stadiums, which shouldn't have been built, are going to be permanently empty.
If the strike does materialize it will be the ninth work stoppage in the last 30 years, including one that caused the cancellation of the World Series, which is the one time the game seems to get the blood rushing for most of us. The prospect of that happening again is pretty good should negotiations break down.
Who are the bad guys? Both sides qualify. But most fans will be inclined to blame the players, with their highly publicized, spectacular salaries awarded when their recent production wouldn't have gotten them out of the minors in the old days. They are becoming removed from those who buy the tickets. Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers makes $118,579 a game. To figure his total pay, keep in mind that there are some 160 regular-season games. Certainly he needs a union like a steelworker or a Detroit assembly-line worker, doesn't he?
In truth, it is the superstars who help make sure the lower-paid players get taken care of in pensions and future health benefits. But hold on. Those lower-paid guys make more a year than 10 steelworkers do in a lifetime.
Then there are the owners, whose history of lying and cheating goes back to the beginning of the game and ultimately helped bring about the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
There is a solution for the disconsolate fan. For a few bucks, he can rent films like "The Natural" or "Major League" or even "The Pride of the Yankees" and have a wonderful evening. Not only will he save money, he probably will see more baseball than he would at the park for the same amount.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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