Baseball likes euphemism. And so the game is again enduring
"labor difficulties" (in the way that Mrs. Powell, when giving
birth to Boog, endured "labor difficulties") and may soon weather
a prolonged "work stoppage" (much as Ted Williams is now
weathering, in the Arizona desert, a prolonged "life stoppage").
But who cares?
For football has returned, as it does every August, to knock the
books from baseball's arms, steal its lunch money and leave the
sport suspended in obscurity--hanging, by its Hanes, from a hook
in a locker.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was greeted last week in Tokyo by
Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who seemed to regard
him as an equal. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig is greeted every
lunchtime in Milwaukee by counter personnel at Gilles Frozen
Custard stand, who seem to regard him as an equal. The NFL is
Paris. Baseball is Paris, Texas.
The pre-preseason scrimmage between the Houston Texans and the
Dallas Cowboys last Friday night drew 27,536 fans. That same
night the midseason game between the Florida Marlins and
Milwaukee Brewers drew 5,167 spectators. But then football plays
only one game in a six-month stretch that nobody cares about: its
all-star game. Baseball plays but one game in a six-month stretch
that everybody cares about: its All-Star Game. Naturally,
baseball's is the one that's curtailed to avoid player injuries.
What do you expect? Football is in the hands of men like Dan
Rooney. The Pittsburgh Steelers president last week was soloing
his Beechcraft Bonanza when the electricity went out, his cell
phone died after a few calls (including one to 911), and his
landing gear failed to fully deploy, leaving the 70-year-old
father of nine to belly-land his plane, in the manner of Pete
Rose, in a strip of grass at Allegheny County Airport, where he
strode away unscathed from the wrecked fuselage, only to fly
again the next morning.
Baseball is in the hands of men like Jim Bowden, the Cincinnati
Reds' general manager, who last week likened union president Don
Fehr to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
To say that football has displaced baseball as the national
pastime, then, is laughably inadequate, like saying that TV has
now edged quilting as a popular diversion.
The best player in football, Marshall Faulk, last month signed a
contract extension worth just more than $6 million a year, or
roughly the salary of Yankees pitcher Sterling Hitchcock, who at
week's end had thrown 24 2/3 innings this season.
Baseball is said to be beautiful because it doesn't have a clock.
But it could use a wristwatch with a calendar function. The NFL
will begin its season on Sept. 5 with Bon Jovi performing live in
Times Square while a giant football drops amid a throng, as if
it's New Year's Eve. Baseball began its season with Dick Cheney
throwing a circle change to Texas Rangers backup catcher Bill
Haselman, as if it were also New Year's Eve and the year in
question was 1943.
Autumn is now the season of renewal, when life begins. Hope falls
eternal. After all, there are at least 14 bona fide Super Bowl
contenders this season. In baseball, it's barely conceivable that
the Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves or Yankees will not win
the World Series--and any minimal doubt arises only because there
may not be a World Series.
Baseball has tried to appeal to younger fans with an ad campaign
of testimonials from Kelly Ripa and Carson Daly. Football this
season will appeal to younger fans by actually appealing to
younger fans. The Dallas Cowboys have their own series on HBO,
home of The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Baseball has Mel Allen
dispensing weekly notes from beyond the grave on ESPN Classic--an
estimable pleasure, but one that is, demographically speaking,
more Preparation H than Generation Y.
Football has a hard cap. In baseball, only John Olerud does.
Football has revenue sharing. Baseball's is nominal. Football has
tackled its problems head-on. Baseball pussyfoots around them,
the very definition of a baseball fight. Last week five players
on the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles were suspended
for a bench-clearing brawl involving 48 men in which
(miraculously!) not one of them was even slightly injured.
Meanwhile, in the Kansas City Chiefs' training camp, offensive
tackle John Tait punched defensive tackle Eddie Freeman, who then
split Tait's face open with his (Tait's) own helmet. Afterward
Tait said, "I don't want Eddie to suffer," and Freeman agreed
that his resultant fine was "more than fair." Barry Bonds and
Jeff Kent, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza--men who've been swinging
their handbags at one another for years--might benefit from such
do-it-yourself conflict mediation.
When it comes to image, football's is eye black, baseball's a
black eye. On the surface the two sports have much in
common--armored men with Popeye arms playing games that end 17-10.
But one's thriving and one's dying. One's cool and one's not.
It's the difference between John Wayne and John Wayne Bobbitt.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE
Football has returned, as it does every August, to knock the
books from baseball's arms and steal its lunch money.