How He Hits, Not What He Makes

TIME was, the talk around the ``hot stove league'' was about baseball. About the game itself, that is, and the people who play it. In newspaper sports pages and wherever fans would gather during the cold months between the World Series and spring training, there would be animated jabber about teams' prospects in the coming season, about trades, real and imagined, about grizzled veterans and rookie ``phenoms.'' It didn't take much imagination to hear in a fire's crackle the sound of hickory meeting horsehide.

Now, it seems, baseball talk during the off-season is dedicated more and more to one thing: money.

In recent weeks major-league owners have unleashed an orgy of spending on free agents - players whose contracts with their teams have expired. This fall teams have lavished more than $230 million on roving players (and their hard-nosed bargaining agents). The biggest salaries are going to established stars, of course: Former Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry will now make more than $4 million a year to hit homeruns (and play lackadaisical outfield) for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But even players who barely exceed the ``journeyman'' category are becoming million-a-year men. The salary structure being established this year, moreover, will contribute to a spiral in coming years as other talented players enter the free-agent market.

What's good for players might not be good for the game. The major league teams currently have a cash bonanza, thanks to vast TV revenues. But the economics of the game are starting to look less rosy. CBS lost $170 million this year on baseball coverage, which portends less network money for teams in the years ahead. Some teams, in big media markets, have lucrative local TV deals, but teams in smaller markets are feeling the pinch. ``Have'' teams could develop an insuperable competitive advantage over ``have not'' teams.

Fans in most cities can expect higher ticket prices.

Does the obsession with money in baseball threaten the fabric of the game? Dire predictions have been made before, without coming true. But in that obsession, the national pastime mirrors an ugly side of America as well as many of its virtues.

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