Commentary: O.K., Baseball, You've Got One Last Chance

I am pleased to announce that on Mar. 31, Opening Day, I will suspend my boycott of Major League Baseball.

Surprised? This time last year, I was the bitter malcontent, betrayed by the guys in pinstripes. In the course of a players' strike and owners' lockout, baseball had sacrificed its 1994 World Series, then put off by three weeks the start of the '95 season. What greed! What arrogance! I was outta there: No more national pastime, live or televised, for this disaffected fan.

The thing is, though, I cherish the sport. I love baseball's democratic sensibilities, its quiet order, its sense of history. I miss the astonishing explosion of perfect green that hits me when I enter a stadium.

I also have a son. And now that Conor is old enough to say "ball," and to throw one (good velocity, no consistency), I'm feeling fatherly urges to show him the ways of the diamond. I want to sit with him in the bleachers, downing hot dogs and surveying the vastness of center field. Call me spineless, but I'm going back. We are.

Some will ask, "Who cares?" Well, the New York Yankees do. "Congratulations!" exclaimed Rick Cerone, erstwhile catcher and now spokesman for the team of my youth, upon hearing of my change of heart. "I'm sure you're not alone," a league spokesman said.

MODEST PROPOSALS. They had better hope so. Attendance was off 20% in 1995, and league revenues were 22% below those of 1993. Now, with season ticket sales for this year up just 6.5%, owners and players are being "careful not to do anything wrong," says Stephen Greenberg, a former deputy baseball commissioner who runs cable's Classic Sports Network. "Everyone realizes the game needs to be back on track."

Still, baseball has demonstrated an uncanny knack of late for screwing up. We fans don't trust the owners or the stars. An owner-commissioned survey by Penn & Schoen Associates Inc. in February found that one-third of fans intend to follow baseball more closely this season than last--but more than a third feel the sport isn't very committed to them.

Count me in both groups. But my boycott suspension is tied to a few demands.

First: No more lost games. As owners and players try once more to settle on a labor contract, the buzz says a 2.5% payroll tax is on the table. The proceeds would be shared by the teams to provide financial stability to small-market clubs. This would yield in 1997 to a 25% "luxury tax" on team payrolls above some threshold. If talks break down, though, a salary cap plan could resurface. And the union hates the salary cap. "If the cap happens, I can almost guarantee that come July 4, the players will walk," says Brookings Institution economist Henry J. Aaron. Translation: a strike.

If the players walk, I walk. So does Conor. We don't come back. This condition is not negotiable.

STOP BEING JERKS. Demand Two: Focus on the sport. It doesn't bother me that baseball team owners make a mint on TV contracts, or that Bernard Gilkey, whoever he is, will take home $2.78 million for roaming the Mets' outfield this season. Why not, if the fans are willing to foot the bill? I just don't want to hear about it. I want to read about the game-winning homer, whether the slider hung, and how many rows back the ball went--but not how much the slam added to someone's bonus. Who asked sports reporters to play business journalist, anyway?

Finally, stop acting like jerks. John Thorn, the editor of Total Baseball, a statistical compendium, observes that Americans have been lamenting the moral decline of baseball for more than a century. Who wants their kids watching drug users, wife-beaters, and ill-tempered prima donnas? Why put up with owners who blackmail cities for new stadiums? Conor doesn't need that.

Honestly, I don't hold out much hope that Major League Baseball can meet these conditions. If it doesn't, though, there's a very nice minor league team near us called the Hudson Valley Renegades. I don't know the players' names, and their games don't make the highlight films. But they don't strike. The hot dogs are fine, and the field is intensely green. I think Conor will love it.

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