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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.

Something else, too. On the track, these brave leadfoots always raced one another's eyes out, but once they turned their engines off, they revealed the kind of authentic, old-fashioned camaraderie that sports fans still cherish. When their brother-in-arms Alan Kulwicki lost his life, winners of subsequent races drove their victory laps backward--a raw but touching tribute to the old Polish joke Kulwicki used to tell on himself. When Ernie Irvan was nearly killed in a horrendous crash, fellow competitors took to his physical and professional comeback as if it were their own, with care and generosity.

While baseball's spoiled brats snubbed the folks who buy the tickets and went out on strike, the good ol' boys--whose ranks now included some boys from Oregon and Connecticut--embraced their fans with a warmth that not even other forms of motor racing could envision. The prestigious Formula One circuit, contested in Europe and South America, remains notoriously high-strung and snobbish. Last year Indianapolis car racing was gravely wounded by an ugly rift between competing sanctioning bodies--CART and the upstart Indy Racing League--that stole the old glamour from American open-wheel racing's signature event, the Indy 500.

Meanwhile, the stock-car boys drove onward. The 1996 Winston Cup season featured Irvan's inspirational comeback and a scintillating points battle between one of racing's durable veterans, 41-year-old Terry Labonte, and its brightest, most appealing young star, Jeff Gordon, just 24. To increase the drama, they are teammates for the visionary owner Rick Hendrick, and their battle for the Winston Cup title came right down to the last race of the season, in Atlanta. A dime novelist couldn't have conjured up a more unlikely scenario: Labonte's brother, Bobby, won the race, and Terry edged out Gordon for his first points title in twelve years--by risking running out of gas.

This season, the NASCAR plots are thickening all over again. While team owner Hendrick faces serious legal problems and--good God--chemotherapy treatments for leukemia, three weeks ago Gordon became the youngest driver ever to win the Daytona 500, NASCAR's blue-ribbon event. Meanwhile, the "man in black," Dale Earnhardt, failed for the nineteenth time in the 500. He's the winner of seven Winston Cup points titles--as many as Petty--but the big score continues to elude him, as it has eluded men like John Elway and Jim Kelly.

There is, of course, a lot to be said for sports in which the players get paid for the quality of their actual performance--tennis, golf, motor racing--rather than for the tenacity of their agents. The mid- and top ranks of NASCAR drivers earn plenty of endorsement money--just like ballplayers--but it usually takes a couple of broken legs (or worse) to keep them out of the starting lineup on game day. Terry Labonte won his title last year while driving with a broken left hand. And Earnhardt, as if he needed to do anything more for his adoring fans, showed exactly what he was made of at Daytona on February 16.

With just twelve laps to go, he was vying for the lead in his famous No. 3 when he was swept into a terrifying, 190-mile-an-hour smashup involving four cars and wound up in the infield. Hauled off to an ambulance, Earnhardt couldn't help seeing that his race car didn't look too bad. "Man, the wheels ain't knocked off that thing yet," he cried. That's right. Bruised and battered, Dale Earnhardt climbed back into his racer, fired it up and staggered through the final miles of Daytona, racking up a few precious points in pursuit of an eighth Winston Cup title.

It's the kind of thing NASCAR fans notice. It's also the kind of thing a second-string outfielder might take note of the next time he ambles after a line drive up the gap just because his club is leading 9-1.

What else can baseball learn from NASCAR--aside from the real meaning of smile, say hello and acknowledge the applause? Well, it might also consider going full speed. Always remember to turn left. And don't be afraid of running into a wall once in a while. Who knows? The fans might even come back.


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