I paused, like a pervert outside a porno theater, before purchasing a ticket to see the Tampa Bay Devil Rays play the Kansas City Royals last Friday night. Then I stepped inside the citric sarcophagus of Tropicana Field, the world's first fully catered sensory-deprivation chamber, as a wave of self-loathing washed over me. I had shelled out $25 for a lower-grandstand seat, thus subsidizing two teams—a combined 58 games out of first place—who had resolved, earlier in the day, to walk off the job on Aug. 30. Unfathomably, I was not alone.
No, there was one other person at the box office an hour before game time, and we fell into conversation in the grim manner of two people newly impaneled for jury duty. He was 23-year-old Rob Bossart, and he was traveling the continent on a $629 AmeriPass, affording him unlimited rides on Greyhound and the chance to visit all 30 major league ballparks in 74 days. The Trop was the 28th stop on his journey, and he had arrived here after a 37-hour trip from Montreal—via New York, Baltimore, Fayetteville, N.C., Jacksonville and Orlando—only to learn of the impending strike. "Do you get the feeling you love baseball...," I began to ask Bossart, but he finished the question himself: "...more than baseball loves me?" he said. "Yes, I do."
It's been said that when Lyndon Johnson lost Walter Cronkite as an ally on Vietnam, he lost the nation. When major league baseball lost Rob Bossart, it surely lost every one of us. He wasn't easy to spurn—this is a man with 23 souvenir soda cups in his suitcase—but the greed, in the end, has become just too dispiriting. "To set a date that might have them on strike on September 11," said the newly minted graduate of Marist College, purchasing a $1 scorecard in the Tropicana rotunda, "is just wrong. It's ludicrous. I mean...what can they be thinking'?" Frisking himself for a pencil and realizing he hadn't brought one, Bossart surrendered another dollar for a length of lead to mark his scorecard.
He wore a Jim Edmonds T-shirt purchased in St. Louis, and the haunted look of a man who has spent the previous two months in a Greyhound or a Greyhound station. "You get half-hour breaks to eat or use the bathroom," he said, sounding like a grateful field hand, which is, in essence, what baseball has taken him for.
His journey of discovery began on June 12, at Yankee Stadium, the only place many New Yorkers can see the Yankees. Though he lives on suburban Long Island, Bossart can't get the Yanks on TV, because owner George Steinbrenner insists on charging cable companies $2 per month per basic-cable customer for his team's YES network, whether the customer wants it or not. Thus Bossart's local cable provider, Cablevision, has declined to carry the channel, leaving three million area customers unable to watch the most storied team in baseball. "Which is fine," said Bossart, "because I'm a Mets fan anyway."
But the notion of his narcoleptic Mets—making a collective $98 million this season—going on strike is too rich for words. Strike? "When I was in Seattle," said Bossart, "the Rangers were in town, and the fans were throwing [phony] money at A-Rod from the upper deck." The fluttering bills looked like dead leaves falling from a money tree, a tree that both sides appear ready to fell.
In fact baseball has, in some quarters, died already. Last Thursday night's Devil Rays game against the Cleveland Indians—won by Tampa on a walk-off home run—received 15 sentences on page 5 of The Tampa Tribune sports section. Friday's game would likewise be won on a two-out, ninth-inning home run, by Kansas City, and that game would be summarized in 17 sentences on page 7 of the Tribune. Which raises the question: If the players do walk out, will Floridians know that they've left?
Perhaps not. The announced attendance on Friday night was 10,311, a figure inflated by several thousand. My impulsive walk-up purchase entitled me to a seat between the visitors' dugout and home plate, 12 rows behind Dick Vitale, who tried—briefly but undeniably—to "raise the roof" during the seventh-inning stretch. But the roof remained obstinately un-raised. Fans did shout, but only to further aggrieve rightfielder Ben Grieve, who was batting .241 for the Rays while getting $4 million this season, a fact that many spectators have taken personally. "You stole money from me, Grieve!" screamed one, repeatedly. "Give me my money back!"
When it was over, we rose as one—we damn near were one, give or take a few—and filed out. Bossart had to catch a bus in the morning for Miami and the following night's Marlins game against the Giants. Like the two teams based in this coldbed of baseball, he was now playing out the string. Earlier in the day he had called Fenway Park and reserved a seat for the Red Sox' Aug. 25 game against the Angels. After that his pilgrimage will be complete. "I'll have done my part," he said, with a touch of sadness. "If they do strike, it will be a long, long time before I'll come back."
I said it was an astonishing pass that baseball has come to in this country. But Bossart, who ought to know, made a salient correction. "Baseball is still a great game," he said. "It's major league baseball that's all screwed up."