Heard the one about the rich car dealer who goes out and blows 89 million bucks on high-priced hookers?
Well, needless to say, he has a pretty good time. So do the hookers. There are lots of them, and they all have talent, so nobody has to work very hard. Still, they do their jobs well, and at the end of the year the car dealer throws a big party for them with lots of champagne. The hookers are half-dressed and all wet, and the photographers take rolls and rolls of incriminating pictures.
Everybody's grinning. What a great time this is, they're thinking. Maybe it will last forever, they're thinking. We've got a lot of good years left in these bodies. But after spending all that money, the rich guy suddenly gets a bad case of buyer's remorse. Before you know it, he tells all the hookers to get dressed and then throws them out of his bed, his house and his town.
"It was getting expensive to keep things lively down at the ballpark," he explains, staring in the direction of his belt buckle. After one big year of fun, the car dealer gets out of the hooker business--and the ballpark business--forever.
The car dealer's name is Wayne Huizenga, of course, and the hookers are an international cast of characters with names like Moises Alou, Kevin Brown and Alex Fernandez. Never again, it seems, will any of them have such a good time. Oh, well. The party's over. Wait till next year: By then they may not remember each other's names.
Is this the way things are supposed to go at the heart of the National Pastime? Is it supposed to happen that some dilettante with a bagful of cash can go out and get the best ballplayers money can buy in about ten minutes, then after they win the World Series decide he's had enough fun and send everyone packing?
Is this the way Connie Mack conceived of the game? Is the Assemble, Achieve & Annihilate Theory of Baseball Team Construction what Charles Hercules Ebbets had in mind when he assumed control of the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1904? For that matter, would the otherwise crass Marge Schott be so crass as to put together the second coming of the Big Red Machine, let it run for eleven glorious days in October and then smash the thing to bits with a sledgehammer?
Oh, I know, I know. There's no use clinging to corny old notions of loyalty, esprit de corps or, worst of all, true love. I know. Fidelity is now the name of an insurance company. Teamwork, in the new lexicon, is what a light-hitting left-fielder and his agent engage in when they're hatching a plot for a new contract. America in the last moments of the twentieth century is not the Home of the Brave but the Land of the Free Agent--a place where every ballplayer, bottle-washer and belly-acher insists on selling himself to the highest bidder, where aging husbands give no thought to trading in their worn-out wives for souped-up new models and a friend is anyone who picks up the check. The concept of a major-league baseball team that will actually stay together long enough to become recognizable--familiar even--to its embattled, long-abused fans has become as alien as...well, as Wayne.
Wayne Huizenga. There's the perfect embodiment of the age. He buys $89 million worth of prime ballplayers (nothing wrong with that, we say) to transform the five-year-old Florida Marlins into contenders, works them hard to win a World Series and, because he's still losing money at the turnstiles, sends orders down the line to scrap the whole thing after just one glorious season. What would Gehrig, Ruth and Lazzeri of the Yankees say to that? For that matter, what would Steinbrenner of the Yankees say?
For bean-counters like Huizenga, baseball is a business--nothing more, nothing less. That's why there was a strike from whose ruin the game is still trying to recover. But for its true fans, baseball is a condition of life. They would no sooner live without baseball than without food. For the Huizengas, a World Championship trophy is a parcel with a ledger sheet attached, waiting to be filled out. For the fans, the trophy is a house of memories, a treasure of exquisite little events perceived (even decades later) with such perfect clarity and profound emotion that each of them keeps unfolding as if in the moment just past.
A moment ago, Willie Mays pursued Vic Wertz's line drive at full gallop into the shadows of center field. Didn't he? A moment ago, Don Larsen threw the final pitch of his perfect game and Yogi leaped into his arms. See that? A moment ago, Joe Carter hit the homer, Sandy Amoros made the catch, and Mazeroski stepped into the box to face Terry in the bottom of the ninth at Forbes Field. Let's see here. It was but a moment ago, too, wasn't it, that Jim Leyland, 34 years in the game, stood on the bottom step of the dugout, awaiting the sting of fate. It's been just a moment since Bobby Bonilla, half-crippled with a bad hamstring, drilled a homer out of Wayne Huizenga's ballpark in the seventh and followed with a clutch single in the bottom of the eleventh and...
Unfortunately, it was also a moment ago that Wayne Huizenga swept his clammy hand through an entire row of World Series heroes. Moises Alou has been banished to Houston for $5 million a year. Rookie starter Tony Saunders, who was a perfect 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA against Atlanta last season, moved across Alligator Alley to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Lead-off man Devon White was shipped to expansion Arizona for someone named Jesus Martinez. Ace closer Robb Nen was peddled to San Francisco for three obscure right arms named Villano, Fontenot and Pageler.
The car dealer isn't done dealing yet. Or annihilating the roster. Last week Gary Sheffield was rumored to be on his way to the New York Mets (or some other club), and the Marlins showed little confidence in re-signing staff ace Kevin Brown. They might even lose starter Al Leiter.
What will be left come spring from the 1997 World Champions? Aging third baseman Bobby Bonilla, shortstop Edgar Renteria, solid catcher Charles Johnson, starter Livan Hernandez and a lineup of strangers. Manager Jim Leyland has not yet been dispatched to the Toledo Mud Hens, but who knows? On the bottom line, the Florida One-Year Wonders, using general manager Dave Dombrowski as the hatchet man, will have cut $20 or $25 million from their annual payroll.
And that is what really matters in the land of whoremongers and hookers.
On Saturday night, the Denver Nuggets were giving away two kids' tickets for every grownup admission purchased, which accounted for an attendance of 12,022 at McNichols Sports Arena.
By the end, most of the kids would rather have been in arithmetic class or at the dentist.
"These guys really suck!" one insightful ten-year-old observed in the midst of another trademark collapse in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. Suck, indeed. The winless Nuggets scored just two points in the last 4:48 and lost their eleventh straight, 84-80 this time, to the Seattle Sonics.
There is no hope in sight for Bill Hanzlik's bunch. An unhappy fusion of youthful inexperience and creeping despair, they will be hard-pressed this season to hit the double-digit mark in wins--something the Atlanta Hawks and the Los Angeles Lakers have already done.
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The sour mood was not lost on our young friend. "My brother's high-school team could beat 'em," he said, only half-kidding. Truth be told, his brother's high-school team probably spooks less easily than these shell-shocked Nuggets. They have now dropped five games by four points or less and are begging comparison with Paul Westhead's infamous 1990-91 collection of sprinter-shooters, which won 20 and lost 62 while averaging 120 points per game.
Hanzlik's team isn't nearly that good, and that might be good.
There's something touching--exciting, even--about complete disaster, isn't there? As this is written, the Nuggets have not yet played their Tuesday night game in Sacramento and thus still have a chance to go 0-12. Hell, at this very moment, they still have a chance to go 0-20 or 0-25! Admit it, Nuggets fans. All two dozen of you. The first win will be (or was!) a comedown, a violation of the perfect ineptitude that marks the hard road to mediocrity.
Seen in this light, 0-82 is the Impossible Dream. What a pity it won't come to pass.