The National Pass�time
The World Series was a true fall classic, loaded with drama that turned on good pitching and timely hitting. We bring this up only because there's a very good chance you were watching one of those riveting Ross Perot infomercials on another channel. CBS, which paid $1.06 billion in 1989 for the right to televise baseball for the next four years—apparently mainly to promote The Hat Squad and Knots Landing—had the second-lowest ratings ever for a World Series following Game 5. That dismal news came after CBS had already written off a $500 million loss on baseball.
Then, even as baseball was winding up its showcase event last week, deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg revealed that ESPN has decided it would rather pay baseball $13 million not to have to carry its games than the $250 million it would have owed if it exercised its option. The buyout by ESPN, which will lose an estimated $240 million on its four-year deal with baseball, may be a bargaining ploy. But executives from all three broadcast networks told baseball's television committee last week to expect a huge decrease in rights fees in their next contract. Jon Mandel, a senior vice-president at Grey Advertising, summed it up this way for The Wall Street Journal: "There is nothing special about baseball anymore."
The marriage between TV and sports has been rocky for some time. Anticipating that things may get worse, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked his league's owners to accept an extension of their current network contracts at much lower fees. The owners refused, and Barry Frank, a veteran negotiator of TV rights fees, predicts they "will be very sorry they did not accept the adjustment and extension."
For baseball, a decline in TV money will make it harder for teams to meet their enormous payrolls. The owners will either have to hold the line on salaries or find new ways to attract TV viewers, perhaps by introducing interleague play or expanding the playoffs. "The reality is that we aren't entering into any more agreements where we lose money," Howard Stringer, No. 2 man at the CBS Broadcast Group, told USA Today last week. "I don't want to repeat the pain of these last four years. Driving off a cliff isn't our intention."
The Men of Blew
Two years ago baseball stopped assigning umpires for postseason play on a rotation basis—a scheme that ensured that if you were an ump and breathing, you'd get to work a World Series—and went to a merit system. Well, sort of. "We look at the guys who we think are due to work an event," says Marty Springstead, the executive director for umpiring in the American League, "and choose from among that basic pool on the merits of the season they've just had." In other words, any halfway decent umpire who hasn't done a Series recently could still get picked.
As the umpiring in this year's Series showed, the new system isn't much better than the old one. Of the six umps selected, three were working their first Series, three had one Series apiece under their belts, and none were crew chiefs. There were two obviously blown calls: American League ump Mike Reilly called the Toronto Blue Jays' Roberto Alomar out at the plate in Game 2, but replays showed Alomar was easily safe; and National League ump Bob Davidson missed a tag at second that would have given the Jays the first Series triple play since Bill Wambsganss's unassisted one for the Cleveland Indians in 1920. At least Davidson had the grace to say, "I thought I was correct at first, but then I saw the pictures, and I had to admit I probably missed it."
Some of the umpires in the Series were very good, but some is not enough. The best teams in baseball deserve the best umpires, even if it means some of the same guys popping up every year.
And while we're at it, baseball should consolidate its umpiring corps, eliminating league designations even during the regular season. That would go a long way toward establishing a clearly uniform strike zone. The inconsistency of ball and strike calls at the World Series is an annual annoyance. The situation should be addressed by the commissioner.