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.

The dual masterpiece pitched by the Braves' John Smoltz and the Dodgers' Ramon Martinez had a similar effect earlier in the day, although baseball purists may wonder if fans in homer-happy cities like Denver really appreciate the minimalist perfection of a 1-1 tie in the ninth. This beauty was resolved by a most valuable dinger in the top of the tenth by the Braves' Javy Lopez, underlining what a home run could be, should be

Fans are also reminded, as the playoffs grow ever more dramatic and charged, that baseball is still a family, despite its most bitter familial squabbles. Indeed, perennial National League batting champ Tony Gwynn is paired on the revived San Diego Padres with his younger brother Chris. Should the regal New York Yankees--by all accounts a more selfless and cohesive bunch this year than in any season past--meet the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series, the Redbirds will send starter Todd Stottlemyre to the mound, while his own father, Mel Stottlemyre, the pitching coach of the Yanks, tries to beat him from the opposite dugout. Colorado Rockies fans, meanwhile, cannot help noticing that no fewer than three members of their old family are now clad in Yankees pinstripes--catcher Joe Girardi, third sacker Charlie Hayes and bench coach Don Zimmer, the Gerbil, who's been slipping into one team's uniform or another for the last 48 years.

Speaking of blood, the most intriguing tableau of last week had to be the intermittent one around the batter's box in the Baltimore-Cleveland series. Baltimore's number-three hitter is, of course, the aforementioned Robbie Alomar, the stick of dynamite that set off baseball's latest and most damaging explosion. The Cleveland catcher is his brother, Sandy, opponent and sibling. The third man in this picture is, of course, the home-plate umpire, brother under the skin to the aggrieved John Hirschbeck. I don't know what kind of conversations took place among the three, if any. But if the networks were ever going to aim a shotgun mike at a sporting event, this was probably the time to do it.

One of Atlanta's great pitchers, Tom Glavine, who is also his club's player representative in labor matters, had a couple of microphones stuck in his face late last week, and he probably spoke for everyone as he tried to balance the on-field melodramas of October against the ugliness that dragged baseball back into a courtroom in the absence of real leadership.

"Every time we seem to be doing something right," the baby-faced Glavine said, "every time we get the excitement going and the fans are interested again, something like this seems to happen."

True. Just as baseball's beleaguered and dwindling audiences were starting to get over the ruinous players' strike that took away the 1994 playoffs and World Series, Robbie Alomar spits in an umpire's face and the umpires' union makes a terrific stink over his suspension, damaging the game all over again. Donald Fehr, the man no fan ever wanted to see again, jumps into the fracas, and judges in black robes are again called upon to mediate the matter of our simple joy. No one can predict where it will all end, especially after a chump turned heroic: In the strangest twist in the sordid Alomar affair, Robbie himself ousted Cleveland from the playoffs with a game-winning homer.

So, then. In the darkness, does beauty, ineffable and true, still emanate from the Grand Old Game? Of course it does. Truth be told, we're all just now finding our seats in the postseason pleasure dome. Regardless of who gets there, the World Series has classic potential this season. Bring it on.

But shouldn't we also keep a keen eye on the open sea, where baseball's troubled ship continues to court disaster? Listening for the sentries in the night is clearly more important than ever, lest we lose the whole thing once and for all. It won't be as if we weren't warned.

Now hear this, Captain. Major-league icebergs dead ahead, off the starboard bow. Don't you think we'd best turn the ship, Captain? Well, don't you? Captain, are you there? Is anybody there?


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