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It All Begins On Opening Day : Then and Now: Coming Apart at the Seams. How Baseball Owners, Players and Television Executives Have Led Our National Pastime to the Brink of Disaster: By Jack Sands and Peter Gammons (Macmillan: $24; 312 pp.) : BASEBALL IN THE AFTERNOON: Tales From a Bygone Era. By Robert Smith (Simon & Schuster: $21; 272 pp.)

April 04, 1993|Thomas Gilbert | Gilbert has authored and co-authored four books on baseball history

It has become fashionable to complain that baseball is in decline. Sportswriters everywhere cry that the sky is falling: Games are too long, the sport is selling out to television, clubs are spending themselves into bankruptcy on lazy, overrated ballplayers. As columnist/television commentator Peter Gammons and sports agent Jack Sands write in the prologue to "Coming Apart at the Seams: How Baseball Owners, Players and Television Executives Have Led Our National Pastime to the Brink of Disaster," "No one--player, owner or fan--seems to enjoy the game any more."

By almost any measure, though, the baseball business is booming. In the face of a slow economy, major-league attendance has risen every year but one since 1986, and cable ratings are growing even faster. Investors eagerly lined up for the right to spend $95 million apiece for the two 1993 expansion franchises. The game on the field is in great shape, too; fans can enjoy Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Nolan Ryan, Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley and many other players who rank among the best of all time.

Sands' and Gammons' book never does justify its rather hysterical title. We hear from owners who think that player salaries are out of control and that chaos is around the corner. We hear from veteran stars who think that young players are selfish and money-conscious.

Not only is this not exactly news--such sentiments have been commonplace in professional baseball since the 1880s--but some of Gammons' and Sands' sources seem to have an underdeveloped sense of irony. Carlton Fisk feels that many of his fellow players are overpaid, but does not hesitate to complain about his own contract. And there is much unintentional humor in Chicago White Sox part-owner Eddie Einhorn's prediction of disaster if Japanese investors are allowed into American baseball: "They won't care about the local communities, only about protecting their investment. Eventually one will move his franchise without league approval and sue when the move is blocked." This from a man who extracted a new $250-million ballpark from his "local community" with a threat to move his team to Florida.

Gammons and Sands do not make a clear case that the sport of baseball is in serious peril or that, if it were, players or television executives deserve any of the blame. After all, both simply negotiate with a cartel of owners who hire and fire commissioners, move or establish franchises and run their business more or less the way they wish, thanks to baseball's exemption from antitrust laws. What "Coming Apart at the Seams" does make quite clear, however, is that many baseball owners are very unhappy in spite of their privileges.

The bulk of the book is given to a gossipy, "inside" account of the decade of owner-player, owner-commissioner but mostly owner-owner conflicts that have led to this state of affairs. Starting with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's ouster in 1984, we follow the owners--many of whom outdo the greatest on-field prima donna in vanity and arrogance--as they lock out spring-training camps, illegally collude to restrict free agency, and achieve a poisonous labor-relations climate in a time of industry-wide growth and prosperity. Unable to solve their biggest problem--the inequity in local broadcasting revenues between large-market and small-market teams--today's owners have graduated to such a state of disunion that they seem unable to agree, in Peter Ueberroth's words, "on what to have for breakfast." Issues of divisional realignment, scheduling and a new playoff structure wait, while the owners try to decide who, if anyone, should succeed Fay Vincent as commissioner.

Whether all of this amounts to the "brink of disaster" or simply the storm before the inevitable calm of revenue sharing in baseball, Gammons and Sands contrast the difficult present with a glimpse of a startlingly rosy baseball future in which all is contentment and prosperity. Players and owners cooperate and fans in glistening new ballparks watch replays, read statistics and even order hot dogs on seat-mounted interactive video screens. While some aspects of this vision are a bit loony--what are the chances that the year 2000 will see a brand-new ballpark in Havana christened Fidel Castro Stadium?--and there is little explanation of how baseball is supposed to get there from here, this too-brief section is by far the most intriguing part of the book.

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