Down in the count, but still swinging
Baseball may have lost some of its mythological status - but not its fans.
Heresy is a strong word. But for true fans of baseball, the words of Donald Fehr in front of a Senate committee, on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by baseball players, came close.Skip to next paragraph
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The problem, the head of the players' association said, isn't baseball, it's the law. Supplements like androstenedione are legal and available to anyone who seeks them, he told the committee.
"I urge you to reconsider the law," he told the panel. "If that's not good policy, change that."
On strictly legal ground, of course, Fehr may have had a point, but the hearing wasn't about legality. It was about fairness. It was about athletes being positive role models for children. And, above all else, it was about baseball, America's national pastime.
In a country where sports are watched and worshipped, baseball has always been special. Its tales and long history are woven into American culture.
Kids play it on the White House lawn. It's been more than a game. It's been the embodiment of a Rockwellian mythology. And "If you make it illegal we will stop" didn't exactly mesh with "If you build it he will come," the signature line from "Field of Dreams," the quintessential baseball-is-America movie.
Steroids aren't the only problem baseball faces as the opening day of the 2004 season dawns Saturday. Last year's playoffs scored great ratings, but soon after the World Series was over, the champion Florida Marlins were dismantled. Critics say the league hasn't had a real commissioner for years.
Baseball's "haves," such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, continue to amass talent and raise ticket prices, while a legion of have-not teams struggle to stay afloat. The Montreal Expos draw so few people at their "home" ballpark that they will play 22 games in Puerto Rico this summer, while the league "shops" them for the best stadium deal.
It's enough to make some fans wonder if baseball has lost its way. "It's not just the steroids. It''s the player movement and the salaries and the ticket prices," says lawyer Ken Ryan, while buying tickets at the Baltimore Orioles team store in Washington. "The game isn't the same. Pricing has pushed it into a corporate venue. I'm here buying tickets to take out a client, not for myself."
"The truth is that Major League Baseball is completely out of touch with its consumers...parents and kids," says Keith Allen, whose 7-year-old son Ross plays Little League in suburban Washington. "In the end, we make a lot of trips to minor league games. The price is right, if you get to the game 10 minutes early you can get great seats, and the players are excited to meet the fans and give autographs."
And yet in some respects, Major League Baseball has never been healthier. In early March, MLB announced it had sold 3 million tickets online for 2004 spring training and regular season, a 130 percent increase compared with the same time in 2003.