Once again, baseball triumphs over humanity

Bud Selig and his goons celebrate the Fall Classic by cracking down on a Giants pitcher's tribute to a fallen friend.

Published October 23, 2002 7:39PM (EDT)

Baseball has met the enemy, and it is itself. As usual.

Jason Christiansen should have had absolutely no role in the 2002 World Series. Trying to recover from career-threatening elbow surgery, the San Francisco Giants' relief pitcher was literally going to just sit there in the dugout, a spectator with the best seat in the house, wearing a Giants uniform that would never get dirty and never get noticed. But then came the intervention of the vast floating cloud of mean-spiritedness that trails the sport of baseball the way the swirling dust used to follow the Peanuts character Pigpen.

Sitting in non-playing anonymity, Christiansen thought he might still serve some good purpose. He would write two letters and two numbers on the back of his cap -- "DK 57" -- and make it seem like his dear friend, the late Cardinals' pitcher Darryl Kile, was there with him.

For this, baseball's executives threatened to revoke Christiansen's rights to wear that uniform and sit in that dugout. In one of those mindless, maddening executive moments that baseball can seemingly summon at will and produce in infinite numbers, commissioner Bud Selig's top two hatchetmen, Sandy Alderson and Bob Watson, confronted Christiansen while the World Series was still in Anaheim and told him his tribute to Kile violated a baseball rule that mandates that all uniforms must look the same.

You know, like in prison.

The heartlessness of baseball's threat to Christiansen -- and by extension its disgracing of Kile's memory -- is underscored by the fact that as an injured member of a World Series team, Christiansen is not permitted to appear, on the field, at any time, wearing a uniform or a cap. In other words, baseball decided to become the schoolyard bully to make sure nobody could possibly see a cap worn by a player who would never be seen unless caught by accident by a TV camera.

The "DK 57" tribute was, as anyone who watched Christiansen's Giants advance to the Series, a standard part of the St. Louis Cardinals' caps after the stunning death of their teammate Kile in June. Kile was one of what is estimated to be less than 100 people aged 33 who will die this year of a heart attack without any prior symptoms. Christiansen was his teammate for only one year and one day, ending with his trade from St. Louis at the end of July, 2001, but in that short time he had developed the kind of deep, transcendent friendship with Kile that was typical of the late pitcher's life, and which multiplied the impact of his sudden passing. After Kile's death, Christiansen had a bracelet made bearing his friend's initials, and he has worn it constantly.

The Cardinals had to apply to the baseball politburo for permission to adorn their caps with a tribute to Kile, just as the Cleveland Indians, and several former Indians players now with other teams, had to apply before adding the initials "JW" to their uniforms in memory of the late beloved Cleveland trainer Jim Warfield later in the summer. Even a year ago, even as the pyre of the World Trade Center still flamed high just miles from the commissioner's office, the New York Mets had to get special permission to wear caps during games that honored the city's firefighters, police officers, and EMS workers -- and there were those in that office who tried to talk the Mets out of doing it for more than just one night.

Before Tuesday night's Game 3, Giants manager Dusty Baker said that the commissioner's office had offered one bare crumb of compromise: Christiansen could keep the hat with him. "They talked to him, they talked to me. That particular hat will be off his head but in the dugout. He's been forced to wear a hat without a 'DK' on it." In short, Selig's stooges felt the tiny chance someone might see a private tribute that would bring nothing but honor and good publicity to the World Series and the sport, had to be reduced even more -- and that the matter was vital enough to merit a conversation with, and a warning to, the manager of one of the teams playing in the World Series.

As if this could possibly get worse, the crackdown on the humanity represented by Christiansen's gesture became widely known at almost the same hour that it leaked out from the Baseball Writers' Association of America that Darryl Kile would be added to this year's ballot for the Hall of Fame election. Only three times previously has the standard five-year wait between the end of a player's career and his initial eligibility for Cooperstown been waived -- for Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, and Thurman Munson. All three died young and are still mourned. Munson was not elected and Kile is not likely to be. But the writers' decision to honor his memory by including him in their vote this winter stands in stark contrast to the commissioner's cruelty in trying to expunge any trace of his memory from the World Series.

No one from baseball would talk on the record about the Christiansen rebuke, nor the invoking of the "standard uniform code," but the rule has evolved -- or devolved -- over time. Originally instituted so that pitchers could not wear half-sleeve undershirts that would flap as they threw the ball and thus visually confuse the hitter, it has instead become a way of insuring that players' uniforms would be the exclusive merchandising domain of the commissioner's office. It is Bud Selig's band of marketers who have permitted manufacturers' logos to appear on shirt sleeves, and have publicly floated the possibility of selling similar spaces to the games' corporate sponsors -- and who have threatened to banish Jason Christiansen to the clubhouse because what he wanted to advertise was how much he missed his friend.

The goal is to control and direct all publicity and images of the World Series in such a manner as to squeeze every dime imaginable, no matter how much psychic coin had to be spent. Forty-eight hours after Alderson and Watson strong-armed Christiansen, commissioner Selig canceled a news conference scheduled by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Rays were merely going to confirm that they'd made an offer to Lou Piniella to become their new manager, and to, sources told me, give a small voice to Piniella's belief that his previous employers, the Seattle Mariners, were trying to manipulate where Piniella next worked. This announcement -- which would have been trivial outside of New York, Seattle, and Tampa -- was deemed to be too much of a threat to the well-oiled World Series publicity machine to be permitted.

Instead, Selig's leg-breakers managed to instead overshadow the World Series by bullying Jason Christiansen and giving the lie to Selig's pronouncements last summer about the tragedy of Kile's passing. Baseball is, of course, always worried about the wrong thing. How, and how long, players can wear their uniform pants was actually a part of the bargaining for the new union agreement that averted a strike.

At times like this, one wishes there had been a strike, and that men like Selig, Alderson, and Watson had gone out of business, and to hell.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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