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THE BASEBALL STRIKE: AS BORING AS IT IS STUPID

I must now find a new way to amuse myself. Baseball is gone, never to return--in this season, at least.

What is left? There are so many experts spouting off about the ramifications of the baseball strike, they have worn me to a frazzle.

They come boring in from all angles. There are Ted Koppel and Jeff Greenfield, George Will, Jerome Holtzman, Bob Costas and too many others. Every one, no matter what his walk of life, has become an expert. And not one has anything different to say.

Not one of these instant experts, however, is more abhorrent or supercilious than Larry King of CNN. King wears his ignorance, like his omnipresent on-camera suspenders, as if it were a decoration for valor. The man has always had an overinflated opinion of himself. It is this overriding self-confidence that accounts for his breakneck decisions to get either married, engaged or divorced seemingly as often as the seasons change.

This was the final straw for me and King. I turn on my television set on the final night before the baseball strike and there sits King, staring straight out at me from the tube. If King were sitting on a park bench and staring like that, I would have swiftly called 911 and told them there was a mental patient on the loose. King looked every bit as eccentric as King Alfonso feeding the pigeons down at the State Capitol.

King is wearing a baseball cap with a bird emblem on the front. His suspenders and tie are decorated with baseball players. He shouts at his two guests. The cords stick out from his neck as he leans forward.

"Why can't you tell us right now you will put the strike off until October?" King demands. "Can't you two men decide right now, on Larry King Live, to put it off so the fans can see the finish of the most exciting baseball season in 40 years?" King's voice cracks. In the last political race, he grew accustomed to having important pols on his show. I recall that he never got himself into a lather like this while kissing the rings of important Americans like Ross Perot, Dan Quayle, Robert Dole or Madonna. The camera switches to the faces of Donald Fehr and Dick Ravitch, the chief negotiators for the players' union and the baseball owners, respectively.

I recognize this pair immediately. For two weeks, these charlatans have been appearing together on every talk show possible. They have missed only Geraldo and Oprah. I am sick of them. I have yet to hear either utter a substantive remark.

If they were serious about their work, this pair should be off someplace working out strike details in a sealed room. Ravitch is a smooth operator with a gravelly voice. He is a product of New York City politics who would like to become baseball's commissioner when this is over.

Ravitch mistakenly thinks he knows just the right way to handle King. "Larry, I'm a great fan myself," Ravitch says. "It saddens me, too, that baseball must come to a halt."

Ravitch is the kind of fan who makes $750,000 a year and always ends up in a box seat with a ticket he didn't have to pay for. There was the time when Ravitch was hired by New York City to upgrade the subway system, admittedly an impossible job. In his excellent book Lords of the Realm, John Helyar tells us of Ravitch attending a 1981 World Series game at Yankee Stadium. When he left his seat to get a hot chocolate, Ravitch was recognized by fans who chanted at him:

"What are you going to do about the subways, you fucking bum?"
Now I'm beginning to wonder what he is going to do about the baseball strike. Fehr was a protg of Marvin Miller, who founded the players' union. Fehr was just out of law school in Kansas City when he hooked up with Miller. To me, his appearance has always seemed just a bit tubercular. Fehr once read the World Book Encyclopedia from cover to cover. It is claimed he reads 150 books a year, many of them on scientific matters.

I don't care how much he reads. Fehr doesn't seem forceful enough to run my union.

Probably I have this all wrong. How can anyone consider a group of men who make an average salary of $1.2 million a year union members? I apologize for even asking that question. It is an issue that has already been discussed, ad nauseam.

I remember a press conference in Chicago at which George Meany, the old union war-horse, sat around with reporters. Newspaper publishers hated Meany. The reporters? We loved him.

 

The subject of the baseball players' union came up. Meany, then in his 70s, had once been a semipro catcher in the Bronx. He was a fan, but he had no use for ballplayers as union men: "You'd never see the day when one of those high-priced bozos would honor a picket line set up around the ballpark by the beer vendors, would you?"

The logic of his remark was inescapable. I think about old George Meany as I watch King pushing all his liberal buttons with Ravitch and Fehr. King is a liberal who makes $1 million a year. Who is he kidding? After a while, Ravitch and Fehr make only perfunctory attempts to answer King's questions. They understand the game he's playing. Besides, it's plain they are talked out. They have no intention of giving their game plans to King. King has two more guests lined up for his second half-hour. The first is Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee franchise and the acting commissioner of baseball. Selig is a figure of fun. He is the son of a Ford dealer, and people in baseball refer to him as Bud Light in recognition of his intellectual capacity.

The second guest is the self-appointed baseball expert George Will. I notice with great satisfaction that Will has suddenly become so overweight that he seems about to pop right out of his tight-fitting suit.

Selig turns out to be a baseball fan, too. He tells us how his heart will break because there will be no baseball games to watch. This is the same man who has been scheming with the rest of the owners for a year to shut down the game.

Will is accustomed to spinning out his ideas on a broad canvas without interruptions. He seems a tad annoyed. While attempting to slobber over him, King keeps interrupting Will with silly questions. Even worse for Will, he is being piped in from a remote location. Whenever King wants to shut Will down, he merely erases Will's picture from the screen.

Will's theory, not by any means an original one, is that baseball's problem is caused by the big-market clubs like the ones in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles hogging all the television money.

King's show lasts for an entire hour. When it ends, I still haven't learned a single new thing.

I have known since spring training that the owners wanted this strike to start sometime in August, and that it would last until the players were beaten. The owners' strategy includes missing the playoffs and the World Series, then locking the players out of spring training next year.

The owners are determined to administer some financial pain to the players. What it comes down to is that they want the players to suffer a little. They figure it won't take long before the players who make the minimum of $100,000 a year realize they owe nothing to Bobby Bonilla, who makes $35,000 per game. Under this scenario, the little guys will sell out the big-money men like Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco and Roger Clemens. Why shouldn't the owners think this way? This is the way they conduct their own lives.

They may be right. This could easily happen by the time spring training rolls around.

There are those who say the owners will lose too much money by shutting down all that time. Nonsense. Most of the money they lose from television rights will be made up because they won't have to pay the huge salaries the players now command. Robert Creamer, author of two excellent baseball biographies, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life and Stengel: His Life and Times, wrote the other day in the New York Times, "If the two sides remain adamant and kill the World Series, then baseball will enter a nuclear winter. Who knows if spring will ever come?"

But just how important is baseball these days?
In a recent Sports Illustrated poll that picked 20 American athletes kids identified with, only Bo Jackson and Nolan Ryan made the list from baseball.

This isn't a real strike. It is rich men retiring to their respective golf clubs. If ballplayers decide to throw up a picket line around Yankee Stadium, they won't be treated the way the copper miners were here in Arizona when they struck Phelps Dodge.

There will be no Governor Bruce Babbitt to call out the National Guard as he did in Morenci. A detachment of storm troopers from the Department of Public Safety won't march into town as it did in Clifton and spray everyone in sight with tear gas.

While you're waiting for the strike to end, figure this one out. In 1968, Carl Yastrzemski of Boston made $100,000 a year and people were agog. Now Roger Clemens, the surly Red Sox pitcher, makes twice that much in a week. Clemens was baseball's first--but not last--$5 million-a-year man.

 

I am reminded of Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten's parable about money:
"A king grants a wish. He will give his subject a penny and double it every day for a month. Do you know what the last payment is? Five million dollars."
I don't profess to know how this will play out. All I know for sure is there is something seriously wrong with the value system of a society in which nurses and teachers struggle to get by and Larry King and light-hitting shortstops find no problem in earning $1 million a year.


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