When baseball was the national pastime, the owners smoked two-dollar cigars and the players, even the underpaid ones, went to work with smiles on their faces. In the reserved grandstand (tickets three bucks), fans drank beer out of real bottles, and there was no need to cut them off in the seventh inning. That's because they were actually paying more attention to the game than to mutating into Godzilla.
On Sunday afternoons the clubs often played doubleheaders. In 1994 a doubleheader means that a couple of loudmouths arguing over the price of smack have knocked each other unconscious in the bleachers at Fenway or Shea Stadium.
We shall never see a return to civility--at the ball yard or anywhere else in the land. Apparently, we won't see much good sense at the top of the game, either. In the past twenty years major-league baseball has suffered through six damaging work stoppages, and a couple of brain-damaged decisions last week by the 28 club owners created the real possibility of a seventh later this summer. Like nations, baseball's powers can't help going to war from time to time.
Shoot the archduke. Invade Poland. Break the players' union. Who cares what it costs?
So it's high time we threw away our outdated notions about the game and its meanings. To get through this difficult period, we need a revised glossary of baseball terms:
A is for Attorney. Between the hordes of agents demanding defense-contract salaries for light-hitting second basemen, and the empty suits riding shotgun for the bosses, there are now many more lawyers in the grand old game than actual players. The owners' designated hitter is one Richard Ravetch, a man every pitcher would love to bean. Next week, Ravetch will present a salary-cap proposal to baseball, a move only slightly less provocative to players than Pearl Harbor.
B is for Basic Agreement. There have been at least seven major labor confrontations between owners and players, but the owners have always backed off. This year, though, any new collective bargaining agreement must be approved by three-fourths of the 28 owners, rather than the simple majority that used to prevail. Head counters say there are at least eight hardliners among the owners who would rather endure a players' strike than compromise. So get that fishing gear in order.
C is for Chin Music. While the owners fiddle, the brand of baseball played on the field has taken some odd turns. Since Big Train Johnson was a pup, pitchers have thrown inside to protect "their" territory, but the mound-chargings, brawls and hefty fines that have erupted in the past two years reveal an ugly new trend. And ignorance of the game: After the Reds' Reggie Sanders got plunked by Montreal's Pedro Martinez in the eighth inning recently, he charged. But was the pitch intentional? Unlikely. Martinez was throwing a perfect game at the time.
D is for Dinger, and we do not mean that awful purple mascot lurching around Mile High Stadium. Expansion has diluted pitching, outfield fences have crept inward, good nutrition and high-tech training have muscled up hitters. And, some say, the new baseballs sewn in Costa Rica are bottle rockets. As a result, the Mariners' Ken Griffey is on schedule, with 24 home runs as of last week, to break Roger Maris's season record of 61; Toronto's Joe Carter (56 RBIs) has a shot at Hack Wilson's 1930 mark of 190; and Yankee Paul O'Neill's current .425 batting average is a point higher than Rogers Hornsby's in 1924. Another owners' conspiracy to keep fans excited? Who knows.
E is for Error, which is what baseball's paying customers will be making if they sit still for many more mid-season she-nanigans from arrogant team owners and self-absorbed ballplayers.
F used to be for Fielding, now a lost art in the bigs, and for Fans, which could become the lost commodity. Now F stands for Fehr, as in Donald Fehr, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Last week he called the owners' stubborn decisions on revenue sharing and salary caps "ominous" and "extraordinarily negative." If Fehr strikes out at the bargaining table, Griffey Junior won't get the chance to hit 62 and the season could lie in a shambles.
G is for Golf, which is what a lot of major-leaguers like to do when they're not playing baseball. Tee times could be especially hard to come by this August, the most likely time for a strike.
H is for HoJo. Just when the Rockies left fielder's hitting stroke is coming around and confidence is returning to those ancient bones, an interruption of the season could scuttle his comeback year--forever. The engine of success gets more difficult to start each year, and as for a lot of older players gazing into the twilight, time is of the essence. Take his September and you might take his soul.
I is for Idiocy, which is what another strike would be.
J is for Jordan, who, we'll wager, is watching the NBA Finals with particular yearning this week. Not only have the rival Knicks displaced his former Chicago Bulls teammates in the limelight, Michael still has trouble hitting the deuce in the bush leagues. By the time the Fourth of July rolls around in boiling Birmingham, and the strike talk in the big leagues really heats up, what'll you bet Jordan starts shooting hoops in earnest out in the backyard?
K stands for Strikeout, as anyone who's ever put pencil to scorebook can tell you. Baseball's biggest, hardest swingers will always have plenty of Ks next to their names, but for most other hitters that statistic is declining. Reduced pitching talent is one reason. The other is that the big-league strike zone, once measured from the uniform letters to the knees, is shrinking faster than a pensioner's bank account. Are offense-minded umpiring crews the secret agents of baseball's new power and scoring surges? Conspiracy theorists think so. Of course, they also believe Ty Cobb shot Lincoln.
L is for Lockout, which is what could occur next spring even if there's no players' strike this summer. If the season ends without a new labor agreement, the owners might declare a stalemate and trash the start of the 1995 season. That way, we can spend next April puttering in the garden.
M should now stand for Maris, the slugger whose home-run record could be smashed not only by Griffey but by Chisox first baseman Frank Thomas. Instead, M is for Marge. Cincinnati team owner Marge Schott lets her dog dump on the Astroturf while she dumps on minorities. Players who wear earrings are "fruits," and she's defied the smoking ban in her own ballpark. Are there any more owners at home like Marge? Unfortunately, yes.
N is for No-Hitter, which is what every scheduled game could be come summer.
O is for Owner. It's also for Obstinate, Obdurate, Offensive, Old-fangled, Omnipotent and Oligarch. Obviously, only openness can offset opprobrium.
P is for Pitcher, the endangered species of baseball's renewed bang-bang style. ERAs are up, complete games are down and revenge is sweet every time a junkballer rolls one off the foot of a hothead coiled at the plate. Maybe Dwight Gooden and Armando Reynoso are lucky to be missing the season.
Q is for Quinn, as in Wellington Hunt "Wimpy" Quinn, whose entire major-league career consists of the five innings he pitched for the Chicago Cubs in 1941. His record stands at 0-0, his ERA at 7.20. But because the players aren't entirely blameless in baseball's current sad state, you can bet there would be nothing "Wimpy" about Quinn's demands were he playing today: The big-league salary average is a million bucks a year.
R is for Reinsdorf. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is apparently the hardest of the hard-liners against labor. Although his club almost got to the World Series last year for the first time since 1959, he's pledged not to budge on players' demands. Meet the Mayor Daley of sport.
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S is, well, for Strike.
T is for Talk Shows, which is where frustrated baseball lovers will be venting their spleens and shouting obscenities if the season is once more ripped from their grasp. For some reason, the wrath of a fan scorned is not always what it should be. We are the ones who should threaten a walkout--then make good on it.
UVWXYZ! is the startled curse (slightly sanitized here, of course) that Reinsdorf, Schott and Steinbrenner would be shouting if a fan revolt really did take place at the turnstiles. Baseball fans are the most loyal on the planet, and the brokers of the game have never hesitated to abuse that fact. If the faithful were to strike back, the shameless money-grubbers wouldn't have a choice but to get their act together.
And that's the ball game, folks.