Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Heaven, Hell and Baseball

(Ancient essay, and perhaps my only attempt at sportswriting, originally published in 2001.)

I miss baseball.

It's not because we had a long winter and I've been waiting for warmer weather to return. After all, spring is here, and teams are at long last taking to the fields for another season.

And it's not because it's unavailable. I have four pro teams -- the Twins, the Brewers, the Royals and my beloved Chicago Cubs -- within a reasonable driving distance.

I miss baseball because in the last few years, the sport I remember has been replaced by something completely unrecognizable. I fear the game I used to love is gone forever. So I've simply chosen to stay away.

In its pure form, baseball has a romance, a history, a sense of democracy and an appeal unlike that of any other professional sport. Picture Kirby Puckett pumping a fist as he rounded third, having just hit the winning homer in Game Six of the '91 Series. George Brett charging the ump, "begging to disagree" about the pine-tar call. Willie Mays sprinting in from the outfield and pulling off one of his trademark basket catches. Jackie Robinson enduring the taunts of so-called fans as he shattered the color barrier. Lou Gehrig calling himself "the luckiest man alive," his words echoing around Yankee Stadium and the world. Babe Ruth calling his shot over the center field fence. What other sport can claim a history so rich?

On the diamond, anyone can be the hero. When the fresh-faced kid just up from the minors climbs the left-field wall to steal is opponent's home run, or when the third-string pinch hitter smacks one over the fence with two men on, or when the young pitcher strikes out the aging batter who was his childhood hero. No other professional sport is even capable of generating moments like these. No other sport so highlights the power of the individual.

And even without those moments, when you're outside in the bleachers with blue sky above, friendly fans all around, a future Hall-of-Famer in right field, a Hebrew National in one hand and an Old Style in the other, you're experiencing the very essence of the game.

Everyone's equal in the cheap seats. Sit out there sometime with the sun shining, the brats boiling and the beer flowing. You'll understand.

So what happened? Well, if you listen to Bud Selig and the rest of the owner's toadies, you'll hear that they've been tinkering with the game in an effort to, as they say, "broaden its appeal."

It used to be that for about the last three months of summer, all eyes were on the pennant race. All summer, teams would be playing their hearts out, methodically trying to inch their way up the division standings and earn a shot at the Series.

That's gone now, killed by one of the owners' bright ideas called "realignment," which chopped a few teams out of each league's East and West Divisions to create something called the "Central." Now, because there are three divisions instead of two, the only late-summer race worthy of note is for the Wild Card playoff spot.

Or put another way: the race is for fourth place.

Now there's something to root for. Hoo-friggin-ray.

And more than ever -- just like any other pro sport -- it's all about money. Forget about Murderer's Row batting lineups -- today's heavy hitters are free agency, multimillion-dollar contracts, revenue streams and merchandising. Hell, a few years back they even killed the World Series over a money squabble. And a lot of fans never forgave them.

So what do the owners do next? Figuring they need something to lure the fans back, they embark on a city-by-city campaign to get new, "state-of-the-art," publicly funded stadiums for each franchise.

Have you ever visited one of these new, "state-of-the-art" facilities? My favorite example is Bank One Ballpark, the downtown-Phoenix home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It's new, it's huge, it's expensive. The game of baseball is merely incidental to the experience of visiting the stadium.

You're protected from the elements by a retractable roof and air conditioning. You have your choice of several sports bars and franchise restaurants right on-site, including a TGIFridays (just like the one in your neighborhood, except that a cut of your tab goes to the team owners) that occupies the right-field upper deck. You have a clear view of the hot tub in right center, where a lucky group of fans can win the chance to spend the game soaking in some company's marketing plan. You're treated to an unobstructed view of several three-story-high corporate logos surrounding the scoreboard and good stereo sound in each seat. And you can't mention the stadium's name without taking on advertising duties for one of the country's largest financial institutions.

Outside, beneath corporate logos numbering in the double-digits, there's a quaint statue of a Diamondbacks player standing before a mother and two children. Between the player and the mom, a brass replica of home plate bears the inscription, "Arizona Diamondbacks Mission Statement." The words speak lovingly about providing a superior baseball tradition for the people of Arizona, even though the franchise isn't old enough to be out of day care.

And there are no cheap seats.

To a purist like me, Bank One Ballpark is a vision of hell. It takes everything baseball was supposed to be and turns it into a marketing vehicle, with plenty of revenue streams flowing right into the owners' pockets.

I find it ironic that despite building such an ornate cathedral to the Church of Corporation and despite having stratospheric attendance figures, the Diamondbacks franchise is still bleeding cash. They may have remembered to set up as many revenue streams as possible, but on the way there they forgot what baseball is all about.

Baseball is not about mission statements. It's not about good sound. It's not about chain restaurants in the upper deck. It's not about retractable domes. And sure as hell, it's not about supplying sets of eyes to view corporate logos.

It's about being in a rusty old ballpark and hearing the announcer's voice -- muffled by a really horrible sound system -- echoing off neighborhood homes. It's about being a fan of the team, instead of a contributor to the franchise. It's about hearing the rattle of a mechanical scoreboard every time someone gets a base hit. It's about enjoying the romance, the history and the sense of democracy that is true baseball. It's about sitting outside in the bleachers with blue sky above, friendly fans all around, a future Hall-of-Famer in right field, a Hebrew National brat in one hand and an Old Style in the other.

Is this Heaven? No, it's Wrigley. 

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