A Bigger League

If the lords of baseball really want to clean up the awful mess they've made, they probably won't be asking stormy Albert Belle to double as the game's official spokesman. Mark McGwire, either. A huge slab of muscle who's proven as fragile as a china figurine, McGwire has turned into the Oakland A's starting bitcher ever since rival slugger Jose Canseco returned to the team. Well, then. Maybe baseball should send acting commissioner Bud Selig out on the road to repair the game's sullied image. No? How about Roberto Alomar, who spit in an umpire's face last season?

Not even the saintly Cal Ripken Jr. looks like a legitimate baseball pitchman these days. When his contract with the Baltimore Orioles runs out next season, the player who broke Lou Gehrig's iron-man record says, he wants $7 million a year to keep wearing that bird on his cap--at the tender age of 38. So much for old-fashioned team loyalty.

By most accounts, the poor guy who's actually got the job of selling post-traumatic, strike-free baseball back to America, Greg Murphy, has his hands full. Baseball hired the former hawker of Maxwell House coffee, Kool-Aid and Diet Pepsi last summer at $5 million a year, which makes him America's highest-paid masochist, and he has promised to bring marketing expertise to a game that for too long presumed on the bottomless goodwill of its fans. His model--haven't we heard this before?--is the National Basketball Association, which turned Michael Jordan into the zillionaire emperor of American life, got every kid under eleven dribbling again and has managed to steal baseball's old thunder since the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Murphy's formula for a major-league refurbishment of baseball's image? "Smile. Say hello. Acknowledge the applause."

Really? That's all? For this the fans are paying Murphy $5 million a year? It's hard to know how many Los Angeles Lakers games he had to sit through before that light came on. But he could have come up with the same insight inside of three minutes at the Daytona 500. That's right. The Daytona 500. NASCAR racing. Stock cars. Because it's the real case study of an authentic love affair between athletes and their fans. An affair that was created out of next to nothing.

Ten or twelve years ago, if you asked the average U.S. citizen who lived more than forty miles from Nashville, Tennessee, for an opinion of NASCAR racing and its attendant scene, he/she would probably start talking about hooded sheets and moonshine whiskey, about first cousins getting married down at the trailer park and how the preacher hightails it out of the reception once the shooting starts. A decade ago, anyone who didn't have an engine block for a head could probably come up with only one name from the stock-car-racing realm: Richard Petty. But even "The King" still conjured up fried chicken, rebel yells and the less savory memories of Confederate politics. Unfairly, stock-car racing--whether conducted Friday nights on a dusty half-mile oval in rural South Carolina or in prime time on the high-banked super-speedway at Talladega--was still regarded by many as a regional aberration inhabited by good ol' boys with bad IQs and tattooed slatterns who'd done time in the big house.

By comparison, even the baddest boys in baseball--cokeheads and wife-beaters and injury-fakers--rarely had to carry the burdens of class and regional prejudice that stock-car racers did. Black and Latin players might still be slighted or stereotyped, but their sport was never regarded, in Boston or San Francisco, as the province of Neanderthals.

Since the mid-1980s, though, NASCAR attendance has doubled. Network television coverage is profuse and profitable. Racing stars like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon have become household names in Birmingham, Michigan (and Birmingham, England), as well as Birmingham, Alabama. The NASCAR Winston Cup circuit still visits Southern shrines of racing like Daytona, Bristol and Darlington, but the Monte Carlos and the Thunderbirds and Pontiacs also do battle now in what were once alien Yankee venues--California, New York, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Even the powers that be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway relented two years ago and opened the gates to stock cars. The Brickyard 400--run in early August--quickly became one of the most popular events on the tour. This season, NASCAR will get up to speed at two major new racetracks--Bruton Smith's Texas Motor Speedway and Roger Penske's California Speedway.

So what happened? How did a deep-fried sport like stock-car racing start to capture the imagination of sports fans everywhere? How did it get off the back roads of Dixie and onto the American superhighway?

Quite simply, it sold its strengths. With good marketing. And good attitude. While Jack McDowell and Barry Bonds were telling nine-year-old autograph hounds to shove it and the thirty self-interested potentates who own major-league baseball teams were busy steering a beautiful game toward disaster, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt were showing up at barbecues to chat with stock-car fans. The racing marketers at Chevrolet and Ford were reaching out to blue-collar consumers and beyond, and the savvy salesmen at NASCAR were showing America that Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin were something more than walking billboards encased in crash helmets. They were human beings with lives and families and dreams--just like the fans.

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