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Commentary : Daytime-Only Baseball Figures to Lose Out to Greed Eventually

May 25, 1986|KEN DENLINGER | Washington Post

News from the National League about the Chicago Cubs sort of makes you wish Edison had been hooked on botany. Because their park has no lights, the Cubs will be forced to play any postseason games this year some 300 miles away, in St. Louis. For once the name of the dumping grounds is appropriate to the decision:

Busch.

Passion might seem moot just now, for the Cubs are in a familiar and comfortable rut. Losers in four of their last six games before Tuesday night, they were 10 1-2 games out of first place and just a half-game out of last place.

In all of major-league baseball, only the Cardinals and Reds had won fewer games. So whales will fly before the Cubs leap past four teams and Dwight Gooden to win the NL East championship.

Given their history, the Cubs are not due for any post-season action at all before about 2023. Until they won the NL East in 1984, they had not finished first in 39 years. For them, it's usually been lights out in broad daylight long before the weather turns nippy.

In the short and long term, NL President Chub Feeney's ordering the Cubs to abandon Wrigley Field for the playoffs is a bit like President Reagan's mandating that citizens of Iowa scoot to Minnesota should a tidal wave form.

Still, the ruling stinks.

It smells of conspiracy, first off, a way for baseball and the owners of the Cubs to strong-arm the town into lights for Wrigley. The idea is to scare Chicago into action next season, not this season. Get fans to worrying in the off-season, when hope is building: "Hey, maybe we've got a shot. And if we do win it, what's better?

"Lights?

"Or St. Louis?"

Cub fans despise St. Louis.

Or perhaps the conspirators are plotting to pull the Cubs from Wrigley, along with the White Sox and Bears, to a slick new super-stadium somewhere out of town. Whatever, Chicagoans are livid.

"Who is the National League anyway?" asked Mayor Harold Washington. "Since when does the National League run Chicago? What are we, a bunch of peons?"

Sadly, yes.

Chicago eventually will crumble, assuming the Cubs ever get good enough to bring the matter to a head. The city of broad shoulders will wimp out, same as everybody else in sport when greed seeks need. If that weren't so, Chicagoans would not have had to troop to New Orleans to watch their Bears win the most recent Super Bowl.

Once upon a time, cities whose teams played for the National Football League championship got a chance to host it. In 1937 the Redskins played the Bears for the NFL title in Chicago; in 1940, the Redskins played the Bears for the NFL title in Washington. In 1973 the Redskins played the Dolphins for the NFL title in the Los Angeles Coliseum. In 1983 the same teams played for the same honor in the Rose Bowl.

Warm-weather site was the con.

Or some such.

Whatever, a rich tradition was shattered.

That'll happen again sometime fairly soon in Chicago. Either lights will deface Wrigley, or the Cubs will move for their most important games. Or they will move for all of their games.

Baseball wants it, television wants it, the Cubs want it. The fans be damned.

Most of big-time sport wants anything that generates the most income. This is why the NCAA often holds the final three games of its basketball tournament in gyms the size of aircraft hangers. This is why much of college football keeps pushing for a structured playoff. This is why pro hockey and basketball play extraordinary regular seasons to eliminate practically nobody.

This is why baseball has agreed that its post-season games will be at night: something about rating points and shares that translates into players who can scarcely lug a bat to the plate commanding $200,000 a year.

This business with the Cubs practically demands fresh lyrics to a sacred tune:

"Take me out to the ball game

"Only when it's at night.

"Find me a time when the Nielsens glow,

"All I want is to roll in the dough.

"So it's rip, rip, rip off the home folks.

"If they complain, what a shame!

"Oh, it's one, two, three and we're gone

"If you don't play ball."

A few questions: where is Commissioner Ueberroth in this sorry affair? Didn't he solve a dispute with umpires his first day on the job? Didn't he, by his own admission, eliminate drugs from baseball in less than a year? Shouldn't his initials be PR? Why can't he keep one lovely link with baseball's past alive?

There can't be too much offensive about day baseball. All it did was keep the game alive for the first batch of decades. A total of 2,161,534 poured into Wrigley for 81 games last season. That was the fifth best attendance in the National League.

Our most celebrated golf event, the Masters, has little but tradition to tout. The course has fairways wide enough for planes to land on; the field is fairly weak, the attitude generally stuffy.

Yet it's the one tournament where we can measure golf, because Jones and Nelson, Hogan and Snead, Nicklaus and Palmer and so many others starred and suffered at Augusta National.

Admittedly, night baseball is more convenient to most people. But shouldn't one icon and a couple of traditions remain? What's wrong with saying: Wrigley Field will be preserved; and when you play there, it will be on natural grass and in daylight?

It would be asking too much for everybody, now and then, to dress in baggy flannels and for the fielders to flip their gloves at their positions at the end of each half-inning. That was baseball's distant past, when there were no lights because there wasn't enough money to turn on the switch.

In baseball's present and future, it hardly seems too much for the owners and players to resist human instincts just once.

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