- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

There was nothing attractive on TV the other night — we only get 200 or 300 channels on digital cable — and a quick search through our unwatched Christmas DVDs ensued. So it was that we savored “Field of Dreams” for the first time in many years.

I mention this only because the film shows us once again the difference between what baseball used to be, at least in our heart of hearts, and the sorry mess it has become.

As James Earl Jones intones famously in the flick, “Baseball reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.” But now that notion could be as much a fantasy as the movie itself.

In case you don’t remember or haven’t seen it, “Field of Dreams” concerns an Iowa farmer who finds the cryptic message “if you build it, he will come” stalking him in his cornfield. “It” turns out to be a ballfield in the middle of nowhere. “He” turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, and pretty soon the second greatest right-handed hitter in history (.356 lifetime average) is cavorting on the premises with seven other robustly ghostly members of the Chicago “Black Sox” who were banned from baseball for purportedly agreeing to throw the 1919 World Series.

The film was released in 1989, when some of us still had the idea that baseball could be lovely and lyrical. Fifteen years later, anyone who thinks that way probably waits up at night for Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Great Pumpkin.

Let’s see. These days star Kevin Costner’s career is in decline after his marvelous early horsehide turns in “Bull Durham” and “Dreams,” second lead James Earl Jones does commercials for a telephone company and Hollywood’s baseball movie of the moment is “Spider-Man 2.” (Any minute now I expect to see Tobey Maguire and Seabiscuit scoring from first on a single. After all, what catcher would dare make the tag?)

Somehow Major League Baseball’s semi-aborted plan to promote “Spider-Man 2” by showing clips on ballpark video screens between innings and stashing the movie’s logos on the bases and around the field seems to represent everything that has gone wrong with what used to be called the national pastime. As Steve in our office says, “Good thing they didn’t pick something like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.’ ”

True, baseball has been losing popularity faster than a Roger Clemens fastball with many teens and twentysomethings who prefer the nonstop action (except for commercials) of basketball, hockey and even soccer. But in demeaning itself to the extent of tying regular-season combat to an action movie aimed principally at them, the sport was demonstrating again just how low it has sunk. Call it hypocrisy to the nthdegree.

In bygone days when Bowie Kuhn, Bart Giamatti or Fay Vincent was commissioner, you never saw Major League Baseball prostituting itself to sell movie tickets — not even for such horsehide charmers as “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” or “The Bad News Bears.” Back then, you see, the people running the game had some pride.

It’s no surprise that Bud Selig, today’s ersatz commissioner, would lend himself to such a charade. We’ve known for some time now that Bud has no respect for the game’s dignity and traditions; if he did, the Washington area would have had its own team many years ago. Instead Selig lets Peter Angelos and other owners lead him around by the nose — but what would you expect from a one-time used-car salesman eager to please nearly everyone?

When Selig has the gall to stand up in a ballpark and praise the memory of Jackie Robinson, as he did last month, I feel like choking on my Wheaties. What the commish should have done is rip predecessor Kenesaw Mountain Landis and all the prejudiced club owners who allowed a color barrier to exist in the major leagues from 1884 to 1947.

But no — when it comes to club owners, Bud is the gentlest despot imaginable. After all, he still is an owner of sorts, although his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, bears official responsibility for keeping the Milwaukee Brewers about as strong as near beer.

And if for some reason you think Bud is a good guy, consider the nefarious trio of owners who just might be behind his every move: George Steinbrenner, Jerry Reinsdorf and, of course, Peter Angelos. Where’s Franklin P. Adams when we need him? Time for him to redo his classic poem with a new cast: “These are the saddest of possible words: Georgie to Jerry to Pete …”

When it comes to earning and deserving respect, Major League Baseball has become a travesty. “Field of Dreams” remains a fabulous trip back to the sport of our childhood, but the idea of today’s game as one we can love and cherish is even more of a fantasy.

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