The foolishness of the baseball writers. Plus: More baseball memories

With sports writers so confused about baseball's labor issues, it's no wonder the fans are all at sea.

Published August 2, 2002 7:41PM (EDT)

To listen to sports fans on talk radio, to see them interviewed on TV, to read their letters in the pages of the newspapers is to hear one loud discordant voice of confusion, and the reason for this is simple: The sports press that they read is even more confused. An A-plus perfect model of what causes this confusion is a column in the New York Times on Sunday by William C. Rhoden, titled "A Troubled Game: An Informal Poll."

In an attempt to "get at an elusive, gnawing truth about why we continue to put up with baseball and its labor problems," Rhoden circulated 17 questions in what he calls an "informal poll." I'll get to the questions in a moment, but if Rhoden had simply asked his question in the terms that he states -- let's say, Why do you continue to put up with baseball despite its continued labor problems? -- he might have gotten an answer as simple as "Because I really love baseball despite all these problems, not because of them." But you can't write a column in the New York Times based on that kind of response, nor can you build an argument on the kind of big, sweeping, absurdly unsupported generalities that Rhoden is given to.

Before telling us what the questions were, Rhoden asked one of his own: "Why do we in the United States continue to maintain baseball as part of the big three bread-and-butter sports -- along with football and basketball -- when soccer is clearly a better game?"

Leaving aside the point that Rhoden isn't, as he admits, a big fan of soccer, one stares dumbfounded at such a statement, wondering upon what possible evidence it could be based. Here's what Rhoden apparently means by "better": "The game certainly points us toward our global future more than baseball, a provincial relic that becomes less relevant with each new season. Soccer's World Cup, with its concentration of internecine rivalries and strong community identification, gives truer meaning to the concept of a World Series than does baseball."

Let me see if I've got this straight. Soccer should replace baseball in the hearts and minds of Americans because it's a better game, and the evidence that it's a better game is the World Cup's "concentration of internecine rivalries and strong community identification." I take this to mean that because the Cameroons have a decades-long antipathy toward Paraguay, Americans should drop their provincial attitudes and get with the world program. This is an astonishingly silly piece of logic, not the least because it takes the United States and not Brazil, Ghana or South Korea as the measure of "provincial." Is this point of view confined to baseball and the United States, or are Canadians, Scandinavians and Russians also "provincial" for preferring hockey to soccer? What about the world's most populous country, China, and its provincial preference for Ping-Pong?

That's only part of what confuses me about Rhoden's argument. By his reasoning, how do American football and basketball rate a place in our national "Big Three"? American football is a sport played by only a tiny fraction of the people who play baseball -- and I don't just mean in America, but in other provincial places where baseball is extremely popular, such as the Caribbean, Japan, Korea, Australia and Italy. I mean, if the World Cup is to be the measure of all things, then why does American football rate any recognition whatsoever? As for basketball, I would guess that the 99 percent of the world under 6-foot-5 is just going to be plain out of luck. I would dearly love to know what the reaction would be in black neighborhoods if Rhoden (who is black) were to tell all the kids there that they must give up their "provincial" identification with basketball for soccer.

It never seems to occur to Rhoden, even as a possibility, that one could argue that all three of these sports, because they utilize arms as well as legs, are more advanced than soccer and therefore it is soccer that should be considered the "provincial" sport.

Anyway, Rhoden says he distributed 50 copies of his poll at Shea Stadium last Friday with his "overriding interest being to find out how many of the fans viewed baseball players as fellow workers." This is about as confused an aim as I can imagine. I think anybody could have told Rhoden well in advance that the number of people saying yes to that was going to be very low -- it was, about 16 percent -- and that in fact the answer would have been about the same if he'd gotten off this silly anti-baseball kick and asked the same question about athletes of any sport. He also might have added that if Americans had not been raised in a society with strong anti-union prejudices they might see things a bit differently, namely they might consider that the Major League Baseball Players Association is not any less a union because it is spectacularly successful and that it is rather silly to argue otherwise.

I didn't say that it was a typical union, but merely that it fits every important definition of what a union is and should be and that every player who's ever been a member of it owes his prosperity entirely to the fact that they have hung together and created their working conditions as a union. Rhoden might also have added that if the people he was distributing his petition to did not understand these points better, it might be because he and his fellow journalists have not done a good enough job of explaining them.

Rhoden goes on to say that the key points in his poll were "Is baseball still our national pastime?" and "If the players strike, will you come back to the park?" Seventy-two percent told him that baseball, in their opinion, was still the national game, and 56 percent said they would be back even if there was a strike.

Rhoden doesn't seem to know what to make of these results, and that is largely, I think, because his premises were confused in the first place. Here, for instance, is one of the questions that Rhoden identifies as a "sample":

The rationale for a strike is that (Circle One)

A) Players are underpaid

B) Workers should get what they can get

C) The player's career is short and he is entitled to the maximum

D) There is no rationale

E) Other

One wonders exactly what it is that Rhoden thought he would learn from asking such questions. Regarding A), the baseball players union has never said that its members were underpaid. It has simply asked that the free market determine what their salaries should be precisely as it determines those of everyone involved in this silly poll, including William Rhoden. Regarding B) and C), who would deny that those points are valid unless they had a simple underlying resentment of the players for being rich and successful? As for D) and E) ... well, you see what I'm trying to say.

If Rhoden had offered as one of his options something like, "The rationale for a strike is that the owners will not put in writing that they will not declare an impasse and impose working and salary conditions on the players," it's possible that some people might have recognized the truth in that statement and chosen that one. If Rhoden had further added, "The reason the owners can do this is because baseball owners alone, among all sports and businesses in this country, are exempt by Congress from antitrust laws, which enables them to stall and refuse to negotiate in any labor dispute," they might have understood the situation even better. But reading Rhoden's questions, one seriously wonders if he understands these points himself.

What is particularly funny about Rhoden's column is that he seems to regard the world of soccer as being devoid of all of the money wranglings, quarrels and disruptions that plague baseball. Perhaps he should study soccer a bit more and distribute a questionnaire at the next World Cup asking if fans are aware of how many British fans have been killed or maimed at soccer riots, how many wars and disputes have been caused over the results of soccer games, or how many scandals have been caused by "rich" countries wooing talent away from "poorer" ones? That Rhoden doesn't know more about the sordid side of soccer is forgivable. Why spend so much time focusing on the truly provincial?

My top 30 baseball memories, 11 through 20:

20) At Rickwood Field in Birmingham in 1993 on the set of "Cobb," Tommy Lee Jones, playing Cobb, dug in on an 85 mph fastball from Roger Clemens, who was playing Ed Walsh. Both men were so deeply into their roles that it was obvious neither was going to back off. "What if," said a nervous assistant to director Ron Shelton, "the next pitch is about 5 mph faster and about 8 inches up and in?" "Then," said Shelton, "we switch the title to 'The Ray Chapman Story.'"

19) Interviewing Lou Brock years ago for a sports magazine, I asked him who were the toughest pitchers to steal against. "For me," he said, "it was Sandy Koufax."
"Koufax?" I replied. "I always heard that his move to first wasn't all that good."
"I wouldn't know," said Brock.

18) Francisco Cabrera's ninth inning, two-out hit that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the final game of the playoffs and put the Braves in the World Series. Can anyone remember so important a hit from so undistinguished a player?

17) Watching Bo Jackson lay down a bunt at the Birmingham Barons home field, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, in 1992 during rehab from a hip operation. It was a terrible bunt -- Jackson poked it right at the Huntsville third baseman with about the same force as if they had been playing fungo. But it was so unexpected that Bo beat it out by five or six steps.

16) Opening up my first pack of baseball cards and finding the Braves' Hank Aaron and the Yankee's Bill Skowron and realized their names weren't spelled "Skarn" or "Arn" the way Yankees announcer Mel Allen, from Birmingham, Ala., pronounced them.

15) In 1979, watching Yankees third baseman Lenny Randle on his hands and knees, trying to blow a slow roller from fair territory to foul. Lenny was tossed from the game, and the ball was ruled a hit. Lenny was my kind of guy. That wussy Carlton Fisk just tried to wave the ball fair. My boy Lenny got down there and tried to do something about it.

14) In 1983, riding on the back of a motor scooter driven by Lenny Randle from the ballpark in Nettuno, Italy, to the train station to catch the train back to Rome (I was working on a story on Italian baseball).

13) 1964, sitting in a field-level box at Shea Stadium watching Juan Marichal's windup.

12) Catching, in the air, the cork from the first champagne bottle to be opened after the Yankees beat the Braves in the 1996 World Series. That cork is now under glass.

11) 1995 at Yankee Stadium, watching Don Mattingly drift over to the seats while watching a pop fly. The ball drifted about eight rows deep, but while the little girl in the box seat had her head turned, Donnie reached over and stole some of her popcorn. You could go to games your entire life and never see such a look on a kid's face.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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