Basketball, a game of quick cuts and slam dunks that translates well to television highlight shows, is also the game of the MTV generation—an appealing sport "in a world where no one has an attention span of three seconds," says ad executive Hayes. That's why even Mattingly's son wants to be like Mike.
What makes things worse for the national pastime, amid the growing competition, is that a baseball game takes 20 minutes longer to play than it did 15 years ago. And it's not 20 minutes of action that has been added, folks.
"Baseball? Well, it's boring," says Newton Frank, vice-president of AHF Marketing Research. "That's the image that comes across to most people. And let's face it, the advertising community is made up of people. They reflect that thinking."
Says Coleman, "Historically, baseball has had the kind of public figures whose popularity transcended the diamond to a wider society. But as entertainment options develop over the years—more TV channels, more Nintendo—you've got to change your marketing strategy."
And so Selig keeps looking for his DiMaggio. Certainly there is no one among today's players with the staying power of the Yankee Clipper, who was still endorsing products on TV as recently as last year and who, 42 years after he retired, was chosen to throw out the first ball for the expansion Florida Marlins on April 5. But baseball needs someone to be its flag-bearer at a time when players have become franchises unto themselves. They switch teams routinely in search of better contracts, all the while asking people to swallow their transparent little lies about how "money's not the issue." The owners aid and abet this expensive game of hopscotch while simultaneously condemning the players for being greedy. An already wary advertising community keeps its distance for fear that a player who signs with a company today might be playing in a different uniform and in a different market tomorrow.
"There's too much movement," Steiner says. "That has been the biggest problem I've heard. Companies have had a hard time zeroing in on a guy when they don't know where he's going to be next year."
"When I came into the league, you had the Brooks Robinsons and Carl Yastrzemskis and people like that," says Brett. "The game doesn't have those Rocks of Gibraltar to stabilize it anymore. And you don't see players on a team stick together the way they used to. Ten or 12 of us used to go out after a game to get something to eat. Now it's take a shower and go your separate ways. To me, what it all boils down to is that baseball has become more of a job than a game. Now it's a business. A big-money business."
After Ryan retires at the close of this season, will baseball be left with any national heroes? What other players are people anywhere in the country willing to pay to see? "Right now, no one," admits Giles, "though I think there are others who might grow into that role." The game is stocked with exciting young players such as Abbott, Thomas, Roberto Alomar, Tom Glavine and Juan Gonzalez, but none of them have begun to make a national impact.
"If there's one guy who can fill Nolan Ryan's shoes," Steiner says, "it's Cal Ripken. The problem is, he's a little shy." Steiner believes major corporations will want to be associated with Ripken as he approaches Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak, a record he is on course to reach in 1995. Shapiro says the bandwagon is beginning to load now, with at least two companies formulating endorsement offers for Ripken.
"Sure, I'd like that role," Ripken says. "I don't know if it will happen. It seems that in baseball, more than the other sports, it takes a whole career to get to that point." Yes, it does take that long for the Ryans and the Ripkens to rise above the tarnished image of the game. It takes that long to separate themselves from the avarice and antagonism. It takes that long to become a baseball hero.