The Spitting Image

That sound you hear deep in the night is the Titanic hitting an iceberg. The passengers don't know it yet, and the crew isn't talking, but she's going to the bottom.

The worst-case scenario for major-league baseball is that the fans are finally so fed up with the loudmouthed martinets who play second base that they won't buy tickets anymore. They're so sick of restraining orders, temporary injunctions and the doughy little face of Donald Fehr that they'll stop going out to the ballgame and begin funneling their disposable income into river-rafting trips, stamp collecting or box seats at beach volleyball. The fans are so weary of watching baseball's once-great ship--with apprentice captain Bud Selig snoozing in the wheelhouse--steam full speed ahead through the ice field, with no regard for the possible consequences.

So. Screw Roberto Alomar. Baltimore's designated spitter is an unrelieved halfwit with no understanding of human civility who should have been suspended from the playoffs in toto--as well as a goodly chunk of the 1997 regular season--rather than slapped on the wrist and sent back to the plate. Here's hoping he catches a good stiff heater with his ribs and is reduced to reading legal briefs all winter long.

Screw John Hirschbeck. While it's unforgivable for a player to spit in an umpire's face or to make ill-considered comments about the emotional effect a death in the family has had upon that umpire, it's also unforgivable for an umpire--baseball's only remaining authority figure--to bait a player with curses or to taunt him after a disputed third-strike call with the words "Just swing the bat." And it's absolutely outrageous for an umpire--no matter what's been said or done to him--to storm into a team clubhouse the next day, shouting that he's going to "kill" the offending party. Increasingly over the past five years, players have acted like children. Increasingly over the past five years, umpires have escalated confrontations with players.

Screw Bud Selig, the acting commissioner who isn't acting. Where the hell was he when the spit hit the fan last week? Not on the boob tube, taking charge before the American public. He was on a "conference call" with the warring parties. Screw Richie Phillips, the belligerent head of the umpires' union who held the playoffs hostage last week by yelling STEEEEEE-rike! Screw Donald Fehr, the pissy players' union chieftain who still can't get a baseball labor agreement signed, even though it's been gathering dust on the negotiating table for more than two months. Screw every no-hitting, gold-chained, Mercedes-driving millionaire outfielder who jakes it every time the ball's hit over his head. Screw Albert Belle, the cosseted prince of tantrums. Screw Barry Bonds, who thinks second base literally belongs to him because he's symbolically "stolen" it. Screw Gene Budig, the president of the American League, who sat on his butt after the ugly September 27 confrontation between Alomar and Hirschbeck instead of hustling up to Toronto and getting a disciplinary hearing under way in about six minutes.

Screw Marty Springstead, the supervisor of American League umpires, who helped engineer those coy little delays of playoff games last week. Screw U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Ludwig, the guy who's putting up with the schoolyard fight among the umps and the players and the pigheaded unions that represent them.

While we're at it, screw Babe Ruth. Screw Willie Mays. Screw the entire Atlanta Braves pitching staff and ERAs they rode in on. Screw Tommy Lasorda, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Mike Piazza and Andres Galarraga. Screw the game. Because the Titanic is sinking fast to the bottom, and no one up on deck thought to fill the lifeboats.

Does that make you feel better, baseball fans? A little venting of the spleen never hurt anybody. Knock the chip off the shoulder and clear the air. Get the thing off your chest. Throw the high, hard one at your old antagonists.

The good news, what there is of it, is that baseball actually put its playoff games on television this year. All the games. On three different networks. In sequence. Starting in the lovely autumn afternoons. That means high school juniors suffering through geometry class and harried stockbrokers who'd had it up to here with trading were once more able to flick on their cleverly concealed transistor radios and listen through tiny earphones as the home-run-hitting Baltimore Orioles beat the favored Cleveland Indians (first the Browns split town, now this!) in two straight upsets. Nothing has ever quite equaled the illicit pleasure of precious innings thus stolen from teacher or boss, and it's good and right that we are once more a nation of baseball criminals.

There was also that twelve-inning thriller last Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. The Bronx Bombers, participants in 36 postseason playoffs and winners of 22 World Series, lost game one to the hard-knocking Texas Rangers, who had never played off against anyone in 25 years. And last Wednesday the Yanks overcame the 4-1 deficit imposed by two Juan (Going, Going) Gonzalez homers by tying the game in the eighth, then won it 5-4 in the bottom of the twelfth, thanks to Texas third baseman Dean Palmer's throwing error. The Yanks went on to win the series in four. It was classic postseason baseball, hot and tense, and reminded us again why we love the game--in spite of the Belles and Alomars of this world.

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