Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Winter of My Discontent

It has been more than a month since I felt like writing anything about baseball. The musings, daydreams, and historical diversions that usually fill the off-season void have not been sufficient to overcome the ravages of reality enough for me to celebrate anything with words. Oh, I'm having a fine winter on a personal level. I'm not complaining. It's just that a sense of dread has replaced anticipation of things to come in the sport I love.

If I'm lucky, it will turn out that only the real world is going to hell and not baseball as well. Maybe it's the sense of economic chaos in the air, the emergence of class warfare. Maybe it's that American politics has turned into a spectacle rivaling professional wrestling in its emphasis on theatrical bluster and chest-thumping. The "good guys" seem weak and at times traitorous, and the "bad guys" have become more brazenly despicable. A decade ago we witnessed the all-time "foreign object" tossed into the fray: "weapons of mass destruction." Once that fraud was uncovered, however, our individual and collective self-interest trumped wisdom, and now the clowns in the ring have stopped even pretending that they care about the rest of us. They only care about outbragging, outfinancing, and outslandering each other, forcing all of us not-so-innocent bystanders to accept that the whole show is rigged. The good guys and the bad guys are all working for the same company; this is what we get for letting the CEO of Halliburton run the country for eight years.

The previous paragraph was not entirely a non sequitur. What looms on the baseball horizon is the result of letting an owner run the game for the last 20 years. Lest we forget, Allan Selig was an owner for nearly a quarter-century before usurping the role of commissioner, and even then it took him awhile to sever his ownership ties with the Milwaukee Brewers. Naturally the owners are so happy with the way he has run things that they're about to let him keep the job at least until he passes his 80th birthday. As one wag noted recently, he seems intent on staying "until Meryl Streep plays him in the movies."

One of the first things Selig did once he assumed power was to make ownership's most serious attempt to bust the union of players, choosing to cancel the last two months of the 1994 season rather than strike a reasonable deal. As a result, baseball fans had no major league games to enjoy from mid-August 1994, to late April 1995, and we had no playoffs or World Series in 1994. We had nothing to look forward to, and many fans deserted Major League Baseball. I could understand why, though I remained steadfast because of my lifelong addiction to watching games in person, on television, or in my mind's eye as I listened on radio.


How did Selig address the problem of getting fans to put their asses back in the seats of major league ballparks? He surreptitiously facilitated the staging of a home-run chase in 1998 which did bring a lot of fans back into the fold. Although the smoking gun may never be produced, it is naive to think that Selig and the other people running baseball in the 1990s had no clue that players beefed up on steroids in order to hit more home runs. Mark McGwire's bloated biceps were the closest thing this country has seen to "weapons of mass destruction" in the last 15 years. Like the used car salesman he used to be, Selig put a shiny coat of paint on his prized lemon, made a quick sale, and hoped that when the engine dropped onto the highway someday, he wouldn't get sued.

When the engine finally clunked onto the pavement--when the rampant use of steroids was exposed--Selig stuck his head firmly in the sand and said, "Really? I had no idea." Rather than do something about it, he stonewalled the public, and it took a congressional investigation and the Mitchell report to force Selig and the Players' Association to institute sanctions against steroid use. The union had gone to bed with Bud once MLB's financial pie got so big that there was more than enough for everybody; that is, after decades of regarding players and owners as "good guys" and "bad guys," of being able to take sides, both parties--like politicians--are clearly partners in the same conglomerate, engaged jointly in fleecing the public. Stan Musial was the property of the St. Louis Cardinals, a well-paid indentured servant, but Albert Pujols is his own subsidiary.

Almost as soon as Selig and the union introduced procedures guaranteeing that the manufacturers of performance-enhancing substances would be able to stay a step or two ahead of enforcement, he declared that the problem had been solved. Of course it hasn't been solved. Ask Manny Ramirez if it has been solved. Ask Ryan Braun of Selig's beloved Brewers. Ask the minor leaguers who are still getting caught using prohibited substances because they can't imagine any other way to reach the majors. Ask all the players up and down baseball's evolutionary scale who are investigating the potency and undetectability of the latest designer drugs. Selig's public assurances that the steroid mess has been cleaned up rings as hollow as politicans pretending to enact meaningful campaign financing reform. If there is one lesson we're learning this winter, it is that the people who have the most money and power are primarily concerned with doing whatever it takes to keep that money and power.

Do you think commissioner Selig's priority the last two decades has been anything other than putting money in the pockets of the cronies who pay him millions of dollars a year to look after their interests? Why do you think he has pushed so hard for an extra playoff team (possibly this year), leading to an extra playoff tier, leading to more revenue for the television networks that make the big profits and salaries possible? No wonder he wants the steroid mess to go away, and stalls as long as he can before doing as little as possible to fend off the posse of truth.

I believe (though it might be wishful thinking) that Selig's legacy will be the black eye of the steroid-bloated faces of a generation of tainted stars and derailed prospects. My wife just asked me what was the "last straw" that made me start writing about the discontent that has been festering in my baseball soul this winter, and I told her it was that in the wake of Barry Larkin getting elected to the Hall of Fame, all that people seem to want to talk about is the impending nightmare of the big-name steroid users appearing on upcoming Hall of Fame ballots. Nobody seems to care about Larkin, a terrific all-around shortstop who won an MVP Award and would have won more than his three Gold Glove Awards if the voters hadn't insisted on voting for Ozzie Smith in perpetuity.

You don't need me to rehash every other baseball writer's anguish over the impossible task of separating the users from the non-users. The voters have made a clear statement by giving scant support to McGwire, lukewarm support to Rafael Palmeiro and his 3,020 hits, and not even enough support to two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez to keep him and his 1,404 hits on the ballot. Next year, with Bondsclemenssosa added to the ballot at once, it will be that much easier for voters to make their point more emphatically by rejecting all of them. Of course, some writers will vote for them, as some have voted for McGwire and Palmeiro. The result might well be that nobody gets elected. If Bondsclemenssosa siphon off 30-40 percent of the vote, and if returning candidates get their fair share (but not enough for Jack Morris or Jeff Bagwell to get over the 75 percent hump), will there be enough votes left for guys like Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza to get elected?

I don't know. Nobody knows, and that's the point. For the first time in Hall of Fame history, voters will not simply be evaluating the numbers. It won't be "how many" of this or that stat, but "how much" those stats owe to drug-enhanced capabilities. It is likely that we will never know who did what, when they did it, or even (specifically) how their numbers were affected. We had steroid-bulked pitchers throwing faster pitches to bloated batters who hit baseballs further partly because their increased velocity on the way in caused a greater force at impact leading to greater distances on the way out. Where was the advantage? The answer to that question is the factor that George Mitchell emphasized in his report but that Selig and his co-conspirators (starting with former union head Donald Fehr) managed to sweep under the carpet: the advantage was gained by all users when facing opponents who refrained from using.

Selig's tacit approval of PEDs (first because there was no "rule" against them, later because catching some people allowed him to pretend that future players would be deterred from using them) has tainted the game so substantially that it may take decades to sort it out and overcome it. Like the most corrupt politicians who pass legislature to benefit their friends, he has enhanced the financial position of MLB so that even its humblest entrepreneurs--useless middle relievers--are millionaires. Good for them. They have achieved the American dream. But they have done so by ruining the illusion for the rest of us. Even if we fans boycott the ballparks, as many did in the mid-90s, even if we resist the temptation to load up on the jersey, caps, and other ephemera produced by teams who change their logos or colors every few years to create a fresh market, we are still corrupted by watching the game televised by networks to whom baseball moguls sold out long ago. Bowie Kuhn, another stooge-turned-commissioner, started the ball rolling on that travesty when he eliminated day games from post-season baseball. Forty years later, we still hear the annual hue-and-cry about night games starting later and ending so late that young fans can no longer grow up with the thrill of championship pursuits. Nobody in charge will be reversing that trend soon, or even making the fan-friendly gesture of moving back the starting time just for World Series games to a more reasonable 6:30 or 7:00 PM. Why not? Because their bosses at the Fox Network believe that there is no time other than prime time. It's almost enough to make one yearn for the days of Kenesaw M. Landis, baseball's hanging judge.

How do I really feel about it? You get the idea. This winter, the commissioner who brought us divisional play and the wild card unveiled his latest brainstorm--a concept previously used only in rec-league slow-pitch softball: the 15-team league. Using economic coercion, he forced the new owner of the Houston Astros to accept a move to the American League; no move, no purchase. If he was so intent on moving a team, why didn't he do the logical thing, which would have been to take the Milwaukee Brewers, who switched from the American to the National League back in 1998 in order to avoid two 15-team leagues, and put them back where they originated? The answer to that one is easy: because Bud Selig wanted a National League team in Milwaukee ever since 1966, when the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta. Selig was the leader of a corps of Milwaukee businessmen who launched a legal and economic campaign to restore National League baseball to his hometown. They shanghaied the Seattle Pilots in 1970 to create the Brewers, and it took another 28 years to maneuver them over the Senior Circuit, but he did it, by golly. There's no going back on that one. So here you go, Houston, but don't forget to find a designated hitter.

The main effect of two 15-team leagues is that interleague play will be continuous, since you can't have a team from each league sitting out the weekend. I'll admit that on this issue I'll keep an open mind on this one. I loathe the idea of interleague baseball, but the games themselves, taken one at a time, are not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the most exciting games I've ever been to at Fenway Park were Mets games; I just watched one on "Mets Classics," the so-called "Omir-acle" home run game. Games are games, and in the middle of May it doesn't matter what uniforms they're wearing. Just give me a good ballgame to enjoy.

But the idea of a pennant race coming down to a final-weekend series between teams from opposite leagues stinks. It's an invitation to scandal. A lot of people were up in arms because the Yankees didn't go all-out in the last game of the season, trotting out eleven pitchers until they lost to Tampa Bay, conveniently keeping the rival Red Sox out of the playoffs. What do you think will happen when the Yankees get to play some National League team the last day of the season that has a chance to keep the Mets out of the playoffs? Or vice versa? Or the Cubs have a chance to screw the White Sox out of the post-season? Or vice versa? Pick your team's rival and give them the direct means to cost you the chance to make your kids or grandkids go to bed during the fourth inning of that key World Series showdown. All together now: invitation to scandal.

So those are some of the churnings that are drowning out the usual winter daydreams of what wonders lie ahead in the next major league season. Adding to the discontent is the probability that it will not be made glorious summer by the sons of (New) York who run the Mets. They have abdicated, abandoning the team's fans by letting the most exciting player in franchise history walk away without a fight. This is the second-most despicable exit in Mets history, topped only by M. Donald Grant letting Dick Young persuade him to jettison "The Franchise," Tom Seaver, in 1977, not quite halfway through his Hall of Fame career. On that occasion I had some solace because Seaver was traded to my favorite team, the Reds. I had no qualms about turning my back on the Mets for seven years, and it was made easier because for most of that self-imposed exile I lived nowhere near New York. But after spending the past decade watching most of the team's games on television--including 1,000 or so performances by Jose Reyes--I'm having a hard time telling myself, "Oh boy, I can't wait to watch and see if the Mets' medical staff trashed Ike Davis' foot so badly that it falls off during his home run trot!"

Go Reds! (I guess.)