"This is our national pastime," says Eddie Einhorn, vice-chairman of the Chicago White Sox. "Our heroes should be here. Why aren't they here?"
•Internal conflict. Where do fans get the idea that players are making too much money? From the same people who expect the fans to come out and watch those miserable mercenaries: the owners and general managers. "If the players were a can of Campbell's soup," says player agent Scott Boras, "the owners would roll it down the aisle, step on it, kick it, call it overrated and overpriced, and then stick it on a shelf and try to sell it."
Last year, basketball's Shaquille O'Neal signed a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Orlando Magic before he had ever played a professional game; four months later baseball's Barry Bonds, who is acknowledged as his sport's best player, signed a six-year deal with the San Francisco Giants for $43.75 million. So why is the public much more familiar with—not to mention incensed about—Bonds's paycheck than with O'Neal's? Because the baseball owners keep wailing about money and salaries. From the day after the World Series ends (when the free-agency filing period begins) to the first day of spring training (when the arbitration hearings are concluding), baseball makes money the primary issue. The rhetoric cools off only slightly when the games begin. "We talk entirely too much about economics," admits Giles. "I don't know why we can't stop talking about player salaries. It's not healthy."
As a result, players are defined by how much they make, not by who they are and how they play. "We used to stand on the street corners and argue who's better, Pete Reiser, DiMaggio or Mel Ott," says Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford. Now fans argue who's worth more—or, more often, who's simply not worth it. Puckett and Ripken, solid citizens and heroes in their respective home regions of Minnesota and Baltimore-Washington, haven't become popular nationwide in part because they are tainted by the collective image of the greedy baseball player.
"Athough Kirby and Cal are totally free of controversy, they still suffer from the overall syndrome of the product knock," says agent Ron Shapiro, who represents both players. Boras claims the owners are so consumed by "retarding player salaries" that they are unwilling to market their product. This year only nine of the 28 clubs displayed players on the cover of their media guides, more often choosing the team's uniform or even generic pictures of equipment—symptomatic of the clubs' lack of promotion of their stars.
Owners recently agreed by unofficial consensus to reduce their public complaints about salaries. "You're seeing a lot less of that lately," one American League owner says. "We decided the less adversity, the better."
•Marketing. Why isn't Sandberg more popular in places outside of Chicago, or Gwynn better known beyond San Diego? Baseball does virtually no marketing of players on a national basis. The game has coasted too long on the presumption that baseball is the national pastime and always will be. "Without question we need a much more centralized marketing approach," says Leonard S. Coleman Jr., Major League Baseball's executive director of market development. "We've built up regional stars. Now we have to push our people into the national spotlight."
Assign some of the blame to the Players Association, too, a wildly successful union in virtually all areas except public relations, which it has all but ignored. In the public consciousness, there is no baseball equivalent to the NFL's United Way partnership or the NBA's Stay In School campaign. As Yankee pitcher Jim Abbott said to union leader Donald Fehr in spring training, "We have incredible resources, but what are we doing to enhance the image of baseball players? I don't see very much." Replied Fehr, "We're working on it." The union, in its first effort at rallying various players around a charity, recently began sponsoring a health-care program for children.
"There's really no campaign from cither side [owners or players] that serves to push players to the forefront, the way the NBA and NFL do," says Brandon Steiner, who owns a New York City-based sports marketing firm. "The only thing baseball players have been known for the past several years is big-money contracts. The leagues and the teams have to present a more well-balanced picture of players before advertisers are going to be interested in them."