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You Get What You Pay For
Steve Rushin
November 26, 2001
And vice versa, as the once ubiquitous freebie vanishes from the sports scene
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November 26, 2001

You Get What You Pay For

And vice versa, as the once ubiquitous freebie vanishes from the sports scene

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Americans will buy anything: water (in bottles), air (at gas stations) and even that most basic of human entitlements-television (via cable). So it shouldn't surprise sports fans that we're now required to pay for pleasures that we used to get free. The Washington Redskins charge a $10 admission fee to their training camp workouts. Elsewhere the ticket you purchase for a pro sports event is often available to you only if you have already paid for a seat license. Meanwhile, not buying a ticket—well, that, too, can be prohibitively expensive. Simply sitting on a rooftop across from Wrigley Field is, in this day and age, an exorbitantly priced (and fully catered) affair.

There do remain, however, a few free lunches in sports. (Sadly, lunch is not among them, for sportswriters now have to open their wallets, with the jaws of life used by emergency-rescue personnel, to pay for pregame press room meals that were once complimentary.) So let us give thanks, this Thanksgiving, for those fundamental freebies that are still available to you, the frugal fan, who is at this very moment enjoying one of them: standing before the magazine rack at 7-Eleven and reading SI without paying.

Yes, you can still get something for nothing. The New York Yankees, for one, intend to broadcast a full 20 of their games on over-the-air television next season. While that's down from 50 games last season, it's still a generous 12% of their schedule, scattered like birdseed to freeloading fans. Indeed the Yanks and all teams in professional sports do, in a manner of speaking, provide, gratis, their entire schedules. That is to say, their pocket schedules—those business-card-sized souvenirs that open up, accordion-style, to reveal month upon gaily colored month of games that you can't afford to attend.

No matter. So much is given to us: Radio is still free. Also, most of your home team's NFL games can be caught with nothing more than a bad TV and a good wire coat hanger. And if you stand outside Camden Yards on game day and peer through iron bars like a prisoner of war, you can see—free of charge—a large swath of outfield grass.

Some things you can't put a price on. Human contact, alas, is not one of them. Those small moments that were once possible at the ballpark—getting an autograph, an idle conversation with an athlete—can now cost you. Signatures have long been for sale in in-flight magazines along with the executive knickknacks. ( Bill Buckner has actually autographed prints of his worst moment, a keepsake officially sold, for $99.95, as the Boot.) During this past baseball season a company began to market an even better birthday present: telephone conversations with retired ballplayers, charged at several dollars per minute, in much the same manner as phone-sex hotlines. (One can picture the delirious 40th-birthday boy panting into the receiver, asking Graig Nettles what he's wearing right now.)

Still, sports fans have it pretty good. Think of all those corners of our universe that commercial interests have yet to colonize. Barry Bonds does not yet collect a royalty when you discuss his home run record in a bar. (Sing Cracklin' Rosie in that same bar, on a karaoke machine, and Neil Diamond is enriched.) Drinking water now costs two or three dollars in most stadiums, but toilet water is still on the house. (Try flushing for free in many foreign airports.) While a 24-exposure disposable camera—essentially, a roll of film-costs a breathtaking $30 at Yankee Stadium (processing not included), no further fee is levied when photographing Don Zimmer. (By comparison, you can't take snaps of model Gisele Bundchen for less than $7,000 an hour.)

Shameless Bud Selig, the ludicrous baseball commissioner, said last week that Minnesotans should "take a good look in the mirror" regarding the potential demise of the Twins, which the owners are considering because citizens of that state declined to pay for a new stadium. But just because Selig and his cohorts are "baseball owners" doesn't mean that they own baseball, any more than Al Davis owns football or Donald Trump owns architecture. It still costs nothing to play long toss in the backyard until your dead arm dangles like a wind sock on a windless day. Or to stomp paper cups, in some concrete concourse, to see who can make the loudest pop! Or to sit in your attic, one January night, and wonder why—for his 1974 Topps baseball card—Tito Fuentes wore a headband on the outside of his Giants cap.

These things may not sound like much, but they're all we have left. And—like butterflies—they're free. No owners can take them from us. Though heaven knows they'll try.