The Nationalized Pastime | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

The Nationalized Pastime 

An Entirely Plausible Vision of Baseball in the 21st Century

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If my political vision is as acute as I fancy it is, 1992 will go down in American history as the year of the most significant signing since the Declaration of Independence: the signing of Ryne Sandberg's baseball contract.

Farfetched, you say? Have a look in the left lens of my oracular sports binoculars:

It's March 1993. Sandberg's $6-million-a-year contract, having already begat Cal Ripken's $6.5 million and Barry Bonds's $7.1 million, has now had a year to gnaw through the thin skins of other stars. After the winter of Greg Maddux's and Andre Dawson's discontent, sparks of envy and resentment start flying as the spring training camps open, beginning with a Jose Canseco tantrum worth, say, $7.5 mil. Before long a wildfire of grousing, growling, whining, sulking, and roaring spreads from sources like Sierra and McGwire and Fielder.

The louder the bleats of salary demands, the more the owners--infamous for their love of being beloved--accede. The more crotchety the mood, the more ratcheting of salaries. Soon the profit infrastructure of the major leagues springs major leaks.

Despite predictions that their golden goose, TV, will not roll out golden eggs indefinitely, the owners ask for more eggs. Guess what. TV won't yield. Nor will the hiking of ticket prices dam the flood of expenses from rising salary levels. As the average utility infielder's salary approaches $2 million per annum--oops, make that $2.2 million; utility man Luis Salazar just signed for $3 million plus--baseball's goose gets closer and closer to being cooked.

It's 1994 now. Fueled by raging envy, players detonate uprisings of money lust in every major-league town. The tethers of owner control are being ripped from their moorings. And the great forces of sports economics are tumbling headlong into unwitting collision.

Once again, given the ammunition of deregulation, private enterprise has shot itself in the foot. Corporate baseball is broke.

But wait! The populace raises its once drowsy voice and yelps for the rescue of its beloved pastime. You see, sometime in the last half-century while we weren't looking, pro sports took that short categorical jump from Luxury to Necessity, from Privilege to Collective Entitlement. It seems the public now regards its sports viewing as no different than its mass transportation or its paved roads or its airports.

It is a near maxim of American economics that once the private sector extrudes its last squirt of profit from an industry, then scraps it like a used-up tube of Gleem and flees with the cash register into remorseless self-exile, the government is expected to retrieve the flotsam and jetsam of abandonment and make it useful--if not profitable--once again. And so a reluctant public sector picks through the wreckage of professional baseball and tries to make a go of what's left.

It's 1995 now. The national pastime has become the nationalized pastime, each city owning its own team and navigating its own baseball destiny. No longer can greedy owners terrorize whole cities by holding their franchises hostage. No longer do admonitory laments veil the blackmail of exodus. No longer can the spoiled brat bawl that it's his ball and no one else can play. Finally, as nature intended, the ball belongs to the People.

Now comes the best part. The mayors of all the big-league cities convene in order to sculpt into workable form the new socialized professional baseball league. The first decision is a walk-through: to avoid the financial devastation of their myopic predecessors, the mayors agree on a sane player pay scale, based on annual merit, with the superstars earning, say, half a million a year. Revenue? That goes for the cities' rebuilding programs--schools, transportation, etc.

Seasoned politicians that they are, the mayors next agree, unanimously and swiftly, to deflect from themselves the responsibility for team performance. After all, some teams have to wind up in last place, and no mayor wants to be gored into joblessness by a charging herd of irate citizens. Legislation is pushed through with the quickness of Andre Dawson's bat. The front office will be an elective office. The president/general manager of each team will be voted for by the citizens--directly!

Soon an election date is announced. Candidates swarm in from every angle. The electorate, recognizing easily the folly of party affiliation, deems it needless. With unprecedented rationality, voters consider only the candidates' virtues and qualifications. Across every big-league city--in bars, restaurants, homes, offices, sidewalks, cars, buses, boats, locker rooms, even hair salons--debate rages, controversy flares, detailed candidate biographies are volleyed back and forth, performance records are parried and thrusted, passions are pitched and fielded.

Incumbents, of course, are laughed off and dispatched to the dumpster of absurdity. Why would any sane voter cast a ballot for any of the current baseball bosses? How could a consortium of bullying blunted corporate Babbitts have a prayer of gaining stewardship of the Chicago Cubs? How could a middle-aged suburban real-estate dice thrower seriously vie for the position of White Sox guiding light? Would a bigoted, abjectly ignorant hausfrau really have a Schott at running the Reds? But enough of this argument: few sports owners even come close to qualifying for their jobs--whether they be in baseball, football, or hockey. So continuing along this line would only be going from bad to Wirtz.

No, we're talking eat-sleep-and-breathe serious here. We're talking nothing so trivial as, say, the U.S. presidency, where we could sleepily allow a dim, amiable, bumbling ex-actor to wamble into office and nap on an overstuffed antique ideology for eight years. We're talking sports here--the most public, the most debated, the most studied, the most absorbing organ of the American body politic. And the captains who steer our teams must not only pass the microscopic scrutiny of their constituencies, they had better perform once in office. Vigilant watch can fast sour into punitive glower. Without a championship or the reasonable hope of one, any captain is liable to be booted out on his assessment.

You do see by now what's evolved here, don't you? For the first time in our history, the ideal of the Declaration of Independence's signatories has been realized--America at last has--

AN INFORMED ELECTORATE!

And if it's true that good habits beget more good habits, shouldn't it be true that an electorate practiced in the informed evaluation of sports-mogul candidates will transfer that energy into weighing other sorts of candidacies, such as mayoral, gubernatorial, judicial, senatorial, even presidential? Shouldn't it be true that a real majority--soaked in studiousness and acting in the general public good--will supplant in clout that self-serving bloc of voters John Kenneth Galbraith calls the Contented Majority? The answers, I suppose, hang in the ballots.

But it does seem a perfectly plausible corollary, doesn't it? Why then am I left with this obstinately sour-tasting doubt that my dream is just so much pie-in-the-skybox? That somehow in the inexorable pull of imperfection, we just won't get the thing quite right, and that the first American president of the 21st century will be Ryne Sandberg?

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