You Can Count On It
Baseball is back
By Neal Shaffer

The coming of the baseball season never fails to give rise to the most pleasant kind of hope. Perhaps it has to do with the concurrent arrival of spring, but it is nevertheless a feeling quite its own. To point this out is not something new—baseball is the national pastime for a reason. It has a mystical quality that no other sport can boast, and within its borders lie the answers to a hundred questions or more. Every April the sport is reborn and, with it, so are its devotees. No matter how desperate the situation had been a season ago there is comfort in the knowledge that 162 is a very large number, and in the time it takes to play that many games there will be moments of unspeakable joy. You can count on it.

There will always be those poor souls who simply can’t, or refuse to, comprehend baseball’s innate joys. These are the ones who say things like "It’s boring; nothing happens." They will never, no matter how many times it is explained, understand that meaning often lies in the space between actions. Many of these same people will go see Star Wars: Episode II without understanding beforehand that it will not be good. It’s not that they’re wrong, but they certainly don’t get it.

Over the course of the next six months this space will periodically be filled with ruminations on the greatness of the game. Here at the beginning the business is more troublesome. Through a decades long pattern of mismanagement, shortsightedness, and greed the custodians of the sport have pushed it to the brink of becoming something it has never been before: irrelevant.

When the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike in 1994 many fans had already begun to desert the game. A year-round sports fix is easily satisfied by football and basketball, both of which are meatier and more slickly packaged than baseball. The strike, which forced the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since WWII (when the reasons were substantially better), was seen as a slap in the face. With good reason, after all—it’s hard to sympathize with millionaires, let alone millionaires who so wantonly stretch the definition of "labor union." It took unprecedented on-field achievements—Mark McGwire breaking the once sacred single season home run record, Cal Ripken playing an impossible number of consecutive games—to bring the sport back. But the reasons for its meltdown were never addressed.

Now the labor contract has once again expired. Nothing has changed since ’94, and if anything the problems have gotten worse. While nobody is publicly suggesting another strike or a lockout—yet —the bargaining process has been less than friendly. Commissioner Bud Selig—a man whose idiocy/power matrix is rivaled only by George W. Bush—has called for the elimination of struggling franchises and made dubious claims about baseball’s fiscal woes. In turn, the players union has consistently failed to make even the smallest necessary concessions.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate, but not between players and owners. They communicate just fine, even if their dialogue takes the form of argument. The problem is that neither side understands the position of the ordinary fan. Sports teams ask a lot of their fans with high ticket prices and six dollar cups of Miller Lite. All we ask in return is that we are provided with the chance to enjoy good competition. But if you live in Milwaukee, Florida, Baltimore, Kansas City, or a handful of other places competition is not something you’re likely to see much of this year. The gap between the wealthy teams and the poor teams is so unbelievably large that it simply will not close without intervention. Baseball needs a salary cap, and needs it badly.

The owners would like this, and it’s hard to sympathize with their side. They are the reason that beer costs so much, and the reason that even nosebleed seats are barely affordable. Still, salaries are out of control. The players fought hard for free agency and they deserve to reap its benefits. The old system, under which teams essentially owned their players, was wrong. Unfortunately the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. There is no reason that the Yankees should be able to buy championships (and for any Yankees fans who think this is not the case, you’re deluding yourselves) while the Expos, with one of the finest minor league systems in the sport, go in every year knowing to expect nothing. It’s simply not right.

Perhaps baseball does have too many teams, and perhaps the players are right to be wary of giving up hard-earned rights. But the eternal hope of spring has been fading a little more each year. If the problems are not resolved this year, even 80 home runs will not make up for the damage that’s already been done.