Baseball, From Business Battles To Essays by Affectionate Fans

COMING APART AT THE SEAMS: HOW BASEBALL OWNERS, PLAYERS, AND TELEVISION EXECUTIVES HAVE LEAD OUR NATIONAL PASTIME TO THE BRINK OF DISASTER By Jack Sands and Peter Gammons, Macmillan, 266 pp., $24.

PLAY BALL: THE LIFE AND TROUBLED TIMES OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL By John Feinstein, Villard, 425 pp., $22.50.

PLAYING HARDBALL: THE HIGH-STAKES BATTLE FOR BASEBALL'S NEW FRANCHISES By David Whitford, Doubleday, 271 pp., $22.50.

BIRTH OF A FAN Edited by Ron Fimrite, Macmillan, 214 pp., $22.

PETER GAMMONS and Jack Sands begin their book "Coming Apart at the Seams: How Baseball Owners, Players, and Television Executives Have Led Our National Pastime to the Brink of Disaster" with a quote from long-ago Giants manager Bill Terry:

"Baseball must be a great game to survive the fools who run it," Terry said upon retiring in 1941. "No business in the world has ever made more money with poorer management. It can survive anything."

Anything, except its own prosperity, perhaps. Sands and Gammons, together with John Feinstein, author of "Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball," and David Whitford, author of "Playing Hardball: The High-Stakes Battle for Baseball's New Franchises," provide a troika of books that show major-league baseball choking on piles of money. It would seem that there is enough money in baseball to fill a stadium to the brim with $1,000 bills; yet somehow there is still not enough to go ar ound.

Sands, a sports lawyer who has represented baseball players for some 20 years, and Gammons, columnist, sports reporter, and one of the best-sourced and most respected writers in the game, claim that baseball is headed for an economic meltdown, and that it is no more than two or three years away. There's plenty of blame to go around, say the authors: Owners who refuse to acknowledge that the players must be their economic partners in the modern game; players who are as selfish and as mercenary as cynical fans imagine them to be; and commissioners Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth, and Fay Vincent all come in for a sound whipping.

It is not too late, according to the authors, and they lay out a blueprint for restructuring the game that includes revenue sharing between players and owners, an end to salary arbitration, and a diminishing of the commissioner's powers (should the owners deign to hire another commissioner, that is). These things may or may not come to pass. What seems inevitable in the Sands-Gammons crystal ball are an extra tier of playoffs (television revenues demand it) and - get a firm grip on your hard, narrow seat

backs, traditionalists - the demise of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

Feinstein, the best-selling author of books on college basketball ("A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers," 1989) and professional tennis ("Hard Courts: Real Life on the Professional Tennis Tours," 1991), spends far less time on baseball's troubles as he chronicles all aspects of the 1992 season. "Play Ball" covers a lot of ground - spring training, the World Series, business, and the money are never far from the surface. There is a look inside the umpire's world and a de lightful sketch of the Philadelphia Phillies' mascot. Unfortunately, the book suffers for its breadth. Feinstein, a terrific reporter and a polished writer (though a bit too careless with cliches), is able to pack much telling detail into his vignettes. But the book has the feel of a scrapbook of newspaper clippings rather than a seamless story with a theme and a message. For those who slept through the 1992 season, this book will get them caught up, and it will no doubt appeal to Feinstein's many fans. Tho se unfamiliar with Feinstein's work will find the earlier books a better introduction.

This year marks the arrival of two new baseball teams. How the fans in Denver and Miami came to be the fortunate ones while those in St. Petersburg, Washington, and elsewhere have been left wringing their hands is a fascinating tale. Baseball was never really picking cities when it decided to expand, explains Davie Whitford; it was looking at owners. And what baseball wanted to see when it came to prospective owners was the color of their money. Miami got its team largely because Blockbuster Video guru W ayne Huizenga had the ability and the willingness to write a check for the $95 million initiation fee. That's the sort of thing baseball owners admire.

Denver, by contrast, had to employ a lot more hustle and pluck. The ownership group there persuaded the taxpayers to build a brand-new $156 million stadium at no cost to the club. They then negotiated the best lease in the history of real estate: Not only will the Rockies pay no rent when their new stadium opens in 1995, they will also manage the stadium and keep all the revenues from concessions, parking, and extracurricular shows and concerts that play in the house when the Rockies aren't there. While the Denver group never had Mr. Huizenga's money, this sort of business acumen was what major league owners liked to see.

Whitford's reporting is a little uneven. He clearly had more access to the Denver group than he did to Huizenga. Conversely, he had greater access to the Marlins' baseball operations than he did to those of the Rockies. Nonetheless, the story is a good one, and his telling of it is first-rate.If these three books don't sour readers on the game, they might well cause fans to swear off reading anything but the box score. The cumulative impression from these books is that nobody in the game is having any fu n - not the players, who make $3 million and loaf because somebody else is making $6 million; not the owners, who complain that baseball isn't like their other businesses, forgetting that that is precisely the reason they wanted to be a part of it; not the fans, who decry ballplayers as mercenaries and decry owners for not buying enough of them to give their team the pennant; not the journalists, who seem to have a contempt for all of it. To paraphrase Casey Stengel: "Doesn't anybody here still like this ga me?"

Ron Fimrite does. So do the 15 friends he persuaded to provide essays for "Birth of a Fan," an antidote to the discussions of corporate baseball that seems so inescapable today. Novelist Mark Harris tells of writing letters home from summer camp in which he was the hero of an elite, well-traveled camp baseball team existing only in his imagination. Frank Deford explains what it was like to grow up in Baltimore, when it was a minor-league city, and how the awareness of living in a "bush" league city shape d his character. Mary Cantwell tells of a schoolgirl crush on Ted Williams.

Each of these writers loves the English language as much as baseball. The essays all strike a chord, not just for their eloquence, but because they prompt memories of how we came to the game and why we love it. They let us know that Bill Terry was right. Baseball can survive anything.

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