Baseball must die

Joe Morgan's book argues that the national pastime is headed for a disaster. But that might not be such a bad thing.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Baseball at its best is a sport of continual anticipation," writes ballplayer-turned-broadcaster Joe Morgan in his new book. This is the season when baseball fans, especially those who only follow the game casually or occasionally, find the level of their anticipation kicked up a gear. Baseball's annual post-season tournament has now yielded the four teams competing for a spot in the World Series, in which the two survivors will do battle during the last week of October. American intellectuals have exhausted themselves (and their readers) by viewing the end of the baseball season as a metaphor, but it remains irresistible. As an edge returns to the weather across most of North America and our hemisphere begins to slide into the darkness, the summer-long dream state of baseball is suddenly transformed into a tense, structured drama with a certain conclusion.

But as Morgan is here to tell us, there is another, deeper narrative running under the surface of baseball history at the moment, and for all its familiarity it's not a comforting one. The star second baseman for the Cincinnati "Big Red Machine" championship teams of the mid-1970s, Morgan has become one of the most astute observers of baseball in his current job as a television commentator for NBC and ESPN. He wasn't mentioned among the best baseball broadcasters in Roger Angell's lengthy encomium to New York Yankees announcer Tim McCarver in a recent issue of the New Yorker, a regrettable omission that may result from Angell's East Coast bias. (Just as inexcusably, Angell also didn't mention longtime San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's voice Lon Simmons, whose droll, deadpan delivery and unbridled passion for the game sustained me through many a languorous California afternoon.)

Morgan isn't a self-styled Renaissance man in the McCarver manner, tossing around snippets from Milton and Shakespeare while watching a manager argue with an umpire. Nor is he a typical ESPN wag quoting hip-hop lyrics and "Simpsons" episodes. A poor speaker when he began his broadcasting career, Morgan has developed into an articulate, if blunt, spokesman for the spirit of old-fashioned hardball. His basic mode is that of a guy in a work shirt who dropped in at the barbershop to jaw with his buddies about the dumb-ass things the manager did in last night's game or debate the finer points of the hit-and-run play.

Morgan reminds me a little of the stern black athletic coaches and vice principals who populated my school district when I was growing up. They commanded us like drill sergeants, demanding that we study hard, play hard and not talk back, then mystified us by charming our mothers with an almost courtly politeness. I'm sure there are certainly problems with this model of masculinity, but it seemed a lot more attractive than the monosyllabic-jarhead Caucasian variety.

There's still a stereotype in sports that black athletes have natural talent and white athletes are "heady" players who work hard. Morgan defied this mold by outworking everybody and employing his moderate athletic gifts to become one of the best all-around players of his era. He hit for power, he hit for average, he stole bases and manufactured runs and he was one of the toughest, smartest defensive second basemen the game has ever seen. He was a relentless fireplug, respected by opposing players and hated by opposing fans. (Just ask any Boston Red Sox supporter about Morgan's play in the 1975 World Series.) In retirement, Morgan has added to his tactical and strategic understanding of the game by learning the baseball industry -- the realm of team owners and executives, league officials, marketers and player agents -- inside and out. He has long been a voice in the wilderness regarding baseball's shameful off-field treatment of African-Americans. (Of the 35 major league managers hired since 1993, exactly one has been black or Latino.) But the unbearable whiteness in the stands and the executive suites isn't the only problem he sees today.

Baseball's predicament has forced Morgan into the role of sage, although his mind is more practical than philosophical. His essential message in "Long Balls, No Strikes" (written with Richard Lally, who also co-authored Morgan's "Baseball for Dummies") is that the abyss into which Major League Baseball stared during the disastrous players strike of 1994 is now staring back. For all the sport's renewed popularity and prosperity after the 1998 season -- in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated the single-season home run record and the Yankees won an unbelievable 125 games -- the baseball business, Morgan argues, is still bent on self-destruction. When the current labor agreement between players and team owners expires in 2001, Morgan foresees a "long war" between the two sides, and suggests that "it's doubtful that the game can survive another lengthy walkout."

What Morgan doesn't say, and perhaps won't allow himself to think, is that it might not be such a bad thing. Surely baseball as a sport, and its unique position in American society, will not be destroyed if the entity called Major League Baseball is melted down, stripped of its bizarre exemption from antitrust law and reconstituted in some much different form. As things stand, establishing a rival baseball league is literally illegal, and for all the millions made by superstar players, the ordinary rules of collective bargaining between employers and employees don't apply. The only real leverage players have comes from their ability to go on strike, and we're likely to see another lengthy stoppage before the sport's future is resolved.

Given how badly baseball commissioner Bud Selig and the other egotistical zillionaires who run baseball have mismanaged it, it may be necessary to destroy this particular village in order to save it. As Morgan convincingly demonstrates in "Long Balls, No Strikes," team owners are largely to blame for baseball's economic ills, from salary inflation to competitive imbalance to the long-simmering animosity between players and their employers. Fans often grouse about the exorbitant salaries paid to star players, without noticing that the owners, for all their whining and complaining, feverishly outbid each other in their eagerness to offer outrageous contracts. Before the 1998 season, for instance, it briefly appeared that superstar salaries had stabilized at a maximum of around $10 million a year. Then, in short order, free agents Bernie Williams, Mike Piazza and Kevin Brown -- fine players, but in my opinion not among the game's 10 best -- all signed new contracts in the $12 to $15 million range. When a real superstar, like the Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr., becomes eligible for free agency (as Griffey will after the 2000 season), no one knows what he will command. Say, $250 million over 10 years? Surely Ted Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves, or Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, or Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, baseball's answer to Beelzebub, will go that high.

The problem with these fabulous sums isn't their absolute size -- we live in long-boom capitalism, after all, and baseball players still make less money than movie stars or platinum-selling pop artists. While the average baseball salary is now well over $1 million, the median is only around $400,000, meaning that half the players make less than that. What's troubling is that only corporate deep-pockets franchises like the Braves, Dodgers and Yankees can afford major superstars' salaries. Smaller teams like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates can't compete for such high-priced talent, and so the best they can offer their fans at the beginning of each season is that they'll play hard and go down fighting. Every year some "small-market" team makes an inspirational little run to get the sportswriters excited. This year it was the A's, with a total payroll only slightly larger than Dodger Kevin Brown's salary, who stayed in the race for a playoff spot until mid-September. But none of the smaller teams has won the World Series since the Minnesota Twins in 1991 -- before the current inflationary spiral kicked in -- and no one in baseball thinks it will happen again anytime soon.

Morgan can be relied on to take the players' side, and he gamely argues that the struggling franchises in Kansas City, Minnesota, Montreal and Pittsburgh have been poorly managed and could make far more money in new stadiums or new cities. (Some owners and baseball authorities are now suggesting that these marginal teams cannot be competitive under current conditions and should be folded or banished to the minor leagues.) This may have some validity, but Morgan also admits that the solution to baseball's economic quandary is mutual compromise. The owners must find a way to share their revenues more equitably -- so that, for example, the Yankees' $50 million local TV contract is partly redistributed to teams in less lucrative markets. Then (but only then, in Morgan's view) the players must accept some form of aggregate or individual salary cap. It's not like this hasn't been tried; various versions of this system are employed in professional football, basketball, hockey and soccer.

Sounds easy, right? What's to fight about except the details? Well, the National Basketball Association, a league with nowhere near baseball's history of labor discord, nearly destroyed itself last year before the players capitulated on the salary-cap issue. As Morgan puts it, "You can take this to the bank -- baseball players will never accept a wage ceiling." Why not? Anyone who thinks contemporary ballplayers don't understand the game's history should read Morgan's book, in which the sense of historical outrage -- the sports world's version of the ancient hatreds of Belfast or Sarajevo -- is palpable and striking. As he says, "I think player animosity toward management is inscribed in our DNA."

Until a federal arbitrator's decision in 1976 created free agency for players not under contract, baseball's infamous reserve clause bound players to their teams literally for life. As Morgan puts it, "There were millions of other people laboring under the same onerous terms, but most of them were living on the wrong side of a wall in Germany." In 1947, the minimum salary in baseball was $5,000; in 1967, after two decades of steep inflation, it was $6,000. The winter after Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto won the Most Valuable Player award in 1950, he went to work in a clothing store to make a living. Even the head of the so-called players union was an advisor appointed by the owners.

In the 23 years since the Messersmith-McNally decision (named for the two players it liberated from bondage), all that has changed, to be sure. Even the most marginal big leaguers make six-figure salaries, and it's not unusual for a player to switch teams three or four times over the course of his career, accumulating millions along the way. Meanwhile, the owners have repeatedly tried to regain power over player movement. In 1981, they tried to short-circuit free agency, sparking a players strike that wiped out a third of the season. In 1987 and '88, they colluded with each other to ensure that no free agent got a better offer than the one tendered by his former team; this eventually cost them hefty damages in another arbitrator's judgment. During the '94 strike, the owners' objective was to impose a salary cap. But after shutting down the sport for nearly a year and causing its image irreparable damage, all they could manage was a modest "luxury tax" on the richer teams, which the likes of Turner, Murdoch and Steinbrenner can easily handle.

In short, we have millionaire adversaries, armed with lawyers and P.R. firms, who hate and mistrust each other as much as any opposing camps of coal miners and silk-hatted capitalists ever did. Given that scenario, Morgan's vision of 2001 as a day of reckoning for baseball seems increasingly plausible. Morgan quotes his NBC colleague Bob Costas as suggesting that a long strike might be necessary to create a radical reshaping of baseball economics, perhaps some form of player-owner partnership that would ensure the game's long-term survival. As painful as such a transition might be for traditionalists (and what baseball fan isn't a traditionalist?), I'd suggest that any price is worth paying if it gets baseball out of the hands of idiots like Bud Selig. Baseball's current commissioner -- formerly the owner of the ineptly run Milwaukee Brewers -- seems personally devoted to gutting the traditional National League and American League structures, further watering down the playoff system and generally turning the game into an anodyne entertainment for white suburban families.

Nothing else in "Long Balls, No Strikes" is as explosive as Morgan's doomsday prediction, but there's much for hardcore baseball fans to savor and only a few bits and pieces to spit out. Morgan of course detests the designated hitter, suggests that the modern emphasis on home runs instead of speed and fundamentals is ruining the game and believes that returning to the four-man rotation is the way to improve pitching. (Did you know that Warren Spahn won 23 games the season he turned 42? I didn't.) He claims, with some justification, that half of major league managers are clueless about the game. (In fairness, three managers he singles out for blistering criticism -- Bobby Valentine of the New York Mets, Jimy
Williams of the Red Sox and Buck Showalter of the Arizona Diamondbacks -- made the playoffs this year.) He argues that Marvin Miller, the tough longtime head of the players union, is as important a figure in baseball history as Jackie Robinson. (Maybe.) With typical contentiousness, he suggests that his 1975 Reds could have beaten last year's great Yankee team. (Too close to call, but if that game occurs in the afterlife I'll be there rooting for Joe.) "Long Balls, No Strikes" is a must-read for serious fans, which makes it all the more regrettable that the book is plagued with so many typographical and factual errors, most of which can't be Morgan's fault (e.g. the reference on Page 227 to the nonexistent "Anaheim Mariners").

Morgan has a reputation as something of a conservative, both inside and outside baseball. He's been active in black Republican circles and refused to interview Fidel Castro during the broadcast of the Baltimore Orioles game in Havana in March. He has also refused to lobby Selig on behalf of his friend and former teammate Pete Rose, who is barred from entering the Hall of Fame because of his gambling. (In his book, Morgan suggests that if Rose publicly apologizes, his fate should be reconsidered.) But on racial as well as labor issues, Morgan remains an activist whose anger is tinged with sadness.

He writes movingly of how he almost quit baseball after leaving his integrated hometown of Oakland, Calif., to play minor league ball in the Jim Crow South, and of how he and other black players on the Houston Astros had to put up with abuse from racist manager Harry Walker. He has marshaled troubling evidence that while overt bigots like Walker may be gone from the game, baseball's pattern of racism remains undiminished. Not only are there almost no black managers or executives in baseball, but Morgan argues that few teams even bother to scout black inner-city players these days, ceding them to basketball or football while going after Sun Belt white kids and cheap Latino talent from the Caribbean.

Like most athletes, Morgan is fundamentally an optimist about baseball and about life, the kind of guy who believes that if we lose today we'll win tomorrow. It's also just possible that he has the clout to make people pay attention, and that he can spur black superstars like Griffey and Barry Bonds into action that baseball's mandarins won't be able to ignore. But even Morgan's up-with-people tone turns a bit melancholy when he considers this issue: "You wouldn't think I'd be writing this 50 years after the game's color line supposedly came down, 40 years after Rosa Parks, 35 years after Birmingham and Martin." A few pages earlier, in discussing baseball's abandonment of the urban player, he almost casually muses: "If I were 18 years old today, I probably wouldn't get the chance to play pro ball." For anyone who cares about the game, even Red Sox fans, that would have been a terrible loss.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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