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Original Issue

A Rude Awakening

A baseball fan, fresh from a trip abroad, returns to find his favorite game in a nightmarish state


Normally I follow baseball news to such a degree that the call-up of pitcher Hilly Hathaway by the California Angels would be earthshaking to me. But I've been across the Pond for the last seven weeks, most of the time in France, sipping vin and watching the dollar drop. Oh, occasionally I would peruse the International Herald Tribune, but reading that otherwise estimable paper for baseball news is like deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. I do know a great deal about the Maastricht treaty, however.

Having been away from the game for so long, I touched down early last week with great anticipation, eager to rush headlong into the inevitable pennant races and catch up on the September call-ups. Upon arrival at home, though, I got an awakening nearly as rude as the French are supposed to be.

The first message on my telephone answering machine was from a producer of one of the network morning news shows. She wanted to know if I could come on the next day to talk about baseball. Fortunately the call had been from the day before, so I missed out on my opportunity. I can just imagine what my conversation with the host would have been like.

"What's your take on Fay Vincent, Steve?"

"I think he's going to hang in there, come hell or high water."

"Uh, Steve, he resigned yesterday."

"He did? Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle."

"What about the pennant races?"

"Well, if the Oakland A's can keep Jose Canseco healthy...."

"Canseco was traded to the Rangers last week."

"No way, Jose. Well, I still think the Mets are going to be in the hunt, what with their starting pitching—Cone, Fernandez, Gooden...."

"David Cone is pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays now, Steve."

"He is?"

"Any thoughts on the Giants moving from San Francisco to St. Petersburg?"

"They are?"

"Uh, thanks, Steve. Coming up in this half hour, a special report on the troubled dollar."

"I can talk about how the uncertainty of France's approval of the Maastricht treaty is affecting the dollar, if you like."

"No thanks."

The producer's call did send me scurrying for as many newspapers and periodicals as I could buy. No pennant races. No commissioner. No kidding.

Somehow I had missed one of the most cataclysmic months in baseball history. As I pieced together the last seven weeks, my mind reeled, so much so that I lost interest in the transactions that ordinarily fascinated me. Craig Lefferts an Oriole? Who cares?

The bigger question is, What have they done to the game? They're making nonsensical, salary-driven trades that throw off the competitive balance. They're allowing an established, successful franchise to move to an unproven market with a wretched dome. They force out the commissioner of baseball because he was trying to bring them to their senses.

They, of course, are the owners, some of whom are intelligent, right-thinking men, but the sum of whom is less than their parts. They blame the players' union for their own stupidity and the commissioner for their own lack of vision. Vincent was no saint, although he does harken back to Saint Vincent of Saragossa, who was imprisoned, starved, tortured on the rack, roasted on a gridiron and set in stocks before he gave up, back in 304. (See what you can learn in Europe?) But the 20th-century Vincent was an exemplary guardian for baseball. His departure, I suppose, was a Fay Accompli after the owners' vote of no confidence. Still, I wish he hadn't given up, even if it was in the game's best interest.

So now, in a time when attendance is on the decline and fan dissatisfaction is on the rise, baseball is left in the hands of the owners' executive council and its chairman, Brewer owner Bud Selig. Some will call this arrangement unprecedented, but it is not. Selig is just a latter-day Vedie Himsl, a faculty member of the 1961 Cubs' College of Coaches, an idea devised by owner Phil Wrigley, who figured four heads were better than one. Those Cubs finished seventh, 29 games back.

Yet another analogy comes to mind, this one from West Side Story. The Sharks (the owners) want to rumble with the Jets (the players), but first they eliminate Officer Krupke (the commissioner). Now that the only buffer between management and the union has been removed, the owners will reopen the collective bargaining agreement, setting up some kind of work stoppage at the start of the 1993 season. They're out of their minds to do this in the last year of their last big television contract and the first year of expansion, but this is what the owners are itching to do. Mark this down: The 1993 baseball season ended on Sept. 7, the day the commissioner resigned.

I'm glad I wasn't around the last few weeks, daily gnashing my teeth over the state of baseball. Besides, I discovered pètanque in France, a game like bowling, which was, after all, Rip Van Winkle's favorite sport. Unlike baseball, pètanque makes perfect sense.

I missed everything. Then again, I missed nothing.