WE'RE SUCKERS FOR BASEBALL.
In our mind's eye, it is a game played under the warm afternoon sun, on a soft, green field, in a friendly, cozy ballpark. Listen—we can hear the crack of the bat or the pop of the catcher's mitt or the infield chatter. Watch—the batter digs in and the pitcher stares in, ready to deal. Kids scurry after foul balls. The stranger behind us expounds on the second sacker's knack for hitting in the clutch. We're glued to our seats until the final out.
In reality, alas, baseball is a game played mostly at night, much of it on carpeted concrete, in an impersonal, charmless stadium. We can't hear our own thoughts—never mind chatter—for all the noise coming from those blasted blasting speakers. When the pitcher isn't taking a stroll behind the mound, the batter is out of the box doing Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1. Kids, what kids? What parent in his right mind would subject a child to the drunken lout who's screaming at the millionaire slugger? Gotta go, it's past our bedtime, even though the game's in the seventh.
Still, we keep coming back. According to the figures, there's nothing wrong with baseball. For the sixth time in seven years, a major league attendance record was set in 1991. The economy of the game is healthy enough that the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Cubs, is willing to give Ryne Sandberg $7.1 million a year for four years to play second base. Three years ago the Baltimore Orioles were sold for $70 million, and now the asking price for the franchise is $200 million.
Despite the numbers, we can't shake this feeling that the game is heading for trouble. It's not just the usual impending labor impasse, although that's part of our dread. Somewhere in the Great Collective Bargaining Agreement baseball signed away part of its soul, and the owners and the players can't see what they're doing to the game. It is not the pastime we once cherished—still do—but an enterprise that places too much emphasis on money and not enough on fun. The perfect symbol of the change in baseball is the baseball card: Where once it was used for topsies and farsies, it is now used for investment portfolios.
These are not the rantings of an old codger who's hopelessly stuck in the past—Jose Canseco probably could carry Mickey Mantle's jock—but rather the concerns of someone who's worried that the baseball he's passing on to the next generation will be hollow: cowhide and string wrapped around nothing. And we're not just complaining about the state of the game. We're offering here, free of charge, a blueprint for baseball. This plan is not unlike the one for the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which honors the past and anticipates the future. While some of these suggestions have a retro aspect to them, they aren't all about a return to the good old days—some of them will make purists blanch.
This blueprint was drawn with the help of executives, umpires, managers, coaches, sportswriters, fans, pitchers, catchers, infielders and the odd centerfielder. Speaking of which, here is an idea from Andy Van Slyke of the Pittsburgh Pirates:
"Change the rules so that foul balls hit by the visiting team are in play. If a fan catches the ball, the batter is out. But if the ball is not caught, the batter and the runners can advance as many bases as they can. Besides making the game more exciting, this rule could have some long-range effects. Attendance would go up in places like Cleveland, where right now a ball hit into the seats behind home plate would turn into a home run. Fans would need to get in shape to help the home team, so we'd have a nationwide fitness boom. And—this is the part the players will like—we can yell 'Get a job!' at the fans when they drop an easy pop-up."
Thanks for your thoughts, Andy.
Now, in all seriousness, here are nine ideas—one for each inning—to help baseball, before the 21st century comes up and takes it deep.