Skip to main content
Original Issue

it's religion, baby—not snow biz

The men who own the game are hurting their sport—usually for the simplest of reasons, contends the noted columnist for the New York 'Daily News.' They don't know what it is they're selling

The real-estate man sells land and knows it. The grocer realizes he sells food. The girl who walks up and down Eighth Avenue in hot pants and high-laced boots knows precisely what she is selling. But the Lords of Baseball, they haven't the foggiest. It is this, their failure to perceive their product, that causes baseball its biggest problems.

"We're in the entertainment business," they say repeatedly, reaching for their designated hitter. Most of them think this way, if they think about it at all, and they are so wrong. Baseball is not entertainment. Baseball is a religion.

Compared to the baseball fan, a Jesus freak is an atheist. The fan believes in his team with a faith that is absolute—and blind. It is an involvement that seizes you in your unthinking childhood and addicts you to death, defying all reason.

Example: a pitcher beats your team. You hate his guts. The following season he is traded—to your team. You love him. Faith, yours, has converted him from devil to angel.

The most famous miracle of baseball conversion occurred many years ago. Leo Durocher was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was very famous and very loved in Brooklyn. And very hated elsewhere, especially where dwelled fans of the New York Giants.

One day Durocher took off his Brooklyn uniform, drove across The Bridge and became manager of the Giants, an act of treason that would call for death in time of war. Suddenly Giant fans loved him, deified his genius. Brooklyn fans, just as suddenly, decided he had always been an overrated bum.

Blind loyalty—complete believing—is the anguish of being a fan, and the joy. If a club owner could understand this simple truism, his dilemma would vanish. He would not be carried away with the modern rage to speed up the game.

"Baseball is too slow," somebody once said. "Baseball is dull." (I think it was Howard Cosell, shortly after ABC-TV became disassociated with baseball.) Whoever said it was not in a ball park. Viewed in a ball park, baseball is not slow. In a ball park baseball is exciting, exasperating, furious, infuriating. In a ball park you scream your head off, and it is wonderful. Only an idiot would scream at his television set.

That is the major difference between football and baseball. Football is a television sport. Baseball is a ball-park sport. No attempt will be made here to argue the relative merits of baseball and football, or to choose between one and the other as Numero Uno. That can be left to Lou Harris and the other pollsters.

My casual comparison of baseball to football is one of apples and oranges, accepting the obvious; that there is a time and place for both and one need not claim to surpass the other. Apples are better eaten. Oranges are better juiced. Football is seen better on television. Baseball is seen better in the ball park.

Once you understand this, it is a simple matter to sense the appropriate pace of baseball. You can understand what the club owner obviously does not—the nature of the product he sells and the needs of the customer.

First, the customer.

Every fan thinks he knows more inside baseball than Casey Stengel, and certainly more than Dick Williams. The baseball fan, since the day he saw the second ball game of his life, is sure of this, sure that he is the supreme mavin, fully licensed to second-guess any manager living and a few dead. This is the allure of baseball. No football fan would dare question Don Shula.

And so, when Walt Alston walks to the mound, takes the ball from Don Sutton and waves for Pete Richert in the bullpen, the guy seated in row 12 of the left-field bleachers turns to the guy behind him and sneers, "What's he bringing in that bum for?"

Now there is action. There is the sublime moment baseball turns from a spectator sport to a participant sport. The unknowing call this dead time; it is in truth a time of delight.

"Boooo! You're a manager, Alston? A Thorn McAn shoe store you should be managing!"

Until a few years ago, this exciting interlude lasted long enough for the grandstand manager to let off steam against the impostor empowered to make such a lousy decision. Then the Lords of Baseball, in their sublime wisdom, decided to speed up the game. Instead of the relief pitcher striding in majestically from the bullpen, warmup jacket slung haughtily over his shoulder, he would be driven in. This, someone figured out, would cut in half the dead time spent changing pitchers.

What was cut in half was the fun the rabid fan had yowling at the obviously insane manager. I believe I read someplace that the mechanization of big-league bullpens has saved an average of 2½ minutes a game. I have not read what the average fan is doing with those 2½ minutes.

See what I mean about club owners not knowing what they are selling? They do not even know the size and weight of their product. Who is to say that a baseball game is too long before it is played? What is the ideal ball game? Under two hours? Two hours and a half? Three hours?

Obviously, it isn't the length, it's the content. A dull game taking an hour and 10 minutes is too long. An exciting game can go three hours and leave the fans screaming for more. If the fan is in such a terrible rush to get out of the ball park, why do doubleheaders draw more people than single games? Invariably, the question goes unanswered.

Most criticism of baseball's alleged dragginess originates with Madison Avenue types, men who equate all living things in terms of television timetables. They will not be happy with baseball until, like football, it is played by the clock, not by innings. Their ultimate aim is to make a ball game a one-hour TV show. World Series games will be 90-minute spectaculars.

The regrettable part is that these Madison Avenue types seem to have a pipeline to the Lords of Baseball. It is their nagging voices that are heard, not the rousing, rooting voices of the regular fans. The regular fan does not go to cocktail parties with the owners.

Misled by such advice, the club owner is convinced he is selling entertainment, that baseball is show biz. It is nothing of the sort. To appreciate a ball game, you must have a rooting interest. This does not pertain to pure forms of entertainment. The audience does not root for Helen Hayes or Paul Newman, although I must say I have heard a few isolated cheers for Raquel Welch.

If the club owner tries to sell his product as entertainment he will go broke. There is little about baseball that is entertaining. To prove this, take a man who knows nothing of the game, sit him down in the best seat in the park and, if he does not fall asleep first, he will get up and walk out.

Take the same man, sit him down front in a Broadway theater or movie house, and chances are he will be enthralled. That's entertainment.

On the other hand, a theatergoer is not likely to shoot another theatergoer during an argument about the merits of the Act Two curtain. Some years back a Dodger and a Giant fan became embroiled in a baseball discussion at a neighborhood bar. The Dodger fan said he would be right back, went home for his gun and returned to win the debate decisively.

It may be argued that these things happened in Brooklyn, where baseball mania peaked, and that such emotions no longer can be found in today's sophisticated fan. Sophisticated what? Upon the triumph of the Pirates over Baltimore in the 1971 World Series, there were news stories of celebrants overturning cars, setting bonfires and ripping apart phone booths in the downtown area. You call that sophisticated?

Neither was it entertainment. It was mad, uncontrolled rooting, for which there is no explanation, no logic. Ask any fan why he roots for the Reds, or the Cardinals, or the White Sox, and chances are he will give you that peculiar shrug. He doesn't remember why. He just does. If a reason is given, the most common will be that his team is the home team. That was good enough in the very early days of baseball, the 19th century days, when local talent played on the local team. Today we have pure mercenaries.

Bobby Murcer, who plays in New York, comes from Oklahoma City. Steve Carlton, who pitches very hard for a Philadelphia baseball company, was born in Miami. Most ballplayers cannot wait to get out of their town once the season ends. That's your home team.

Certainly chauvinism is not the acceptable answer to baseball allegiance by the common, garden-variety fan. Something happened to all of us, way back when...back in the days of childhood awareness. Some slight thing attracted us to a certain player on a certain team, some little thing that is long since gone, along with the player, but it matters not. It became our team that hazy, long-ago day, and over the years it has remained our team.

Ask yourself why. Can you remember what it was? Probably not. No matter. It is too late to change, and so you root, blindly, emotionally. It remains your team forever—unless something terrible happens to turn you off.

I know a New Yorker who began rooting for the Braves in Boston because of Warren Spahn. Then he rooted for the Braves in Milwaukee, and now for the Braves in Atlanta—while Warren Spahn teaches pitching in Cleveland.

That is what the club owners are selling. The day they concentrate their merchandising appeal on this intangible product, this faith, is the day they will understand what they are selling. Until then, we will have to settle for designated hitters, bullpen carts and shapely little blondes dusting off the bases in Baltimore.