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MIKE PENNER

Panacea for a Moribund National Pastime: Just Play Ball, Baby

April 04, 1993|MIKE PENNER

They say someone needs to save baseball.

I say call Dennis Eckersley.

They say this is no time to be glib, that the situation is urgent, that the Grand Old Game is drowning beneath the murky waves of player self-absorption, owner lunk-headedness, major-network indifference, agent interference and, not too surprisingly, growing fan disgust.

I say reduce the players on the field from nine to five, level the mound, lay down some hardwood over the plastic grass, install a couple of 10-foot-high hoops and rename the game "basketball."

They say this is serious, that if something isn't done quickly, the national pastime could be lost, thus depriving future summers of four-hour 8-3 tussles between the Padres and the Phillies, Kevin Reimer in the outfield, All-Star ballot-box stuffing and Dick Schofield at the plate with the tying run on second.

I say this doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

They say they're coming over to the house, armed with heavy rope and a videocassette of "Field of Dreams."

I say, "I give, no sense getting nasty about it." If baseball is sincerely intent on recapturing the interest of those millions of fans set to bolt for hockey, roller-blading or Super Nintendo, it can start by:

Hiring David Stern.

Baseball's headless body has been flailing away for nearly a year, which explains why the game keeps bumping into walls and door jams.

Hire a commissioner. Today. Almost anybody will do--Bill James, Bob Costas, Fay Vincent--but since the circumstances are dire, let us aim as high as we can.

Once Stern is in office, give him some elbow room. Quickly, then, Stern can move to restrict arbitration, reduce the free-agency wait from six years to four, implement a legitimate revenue-sharing plan, introduce a legitimate minority-hiring program, install a salary cap, negotiate a major-network television contract that includes a Game of the Week every week and World Series day games and, once that is finished, prohibit the use of the phrase "impending labor crisis" for the remainder of the century.

Then, just play the damn games.

Saying yes already to interleague play and the second tier of playoffs.

Oh, but think of the tradition . Oh, but I am: The Cubs going 47 years without playing in a World Series, the Rangers going 32 years without making the playoffs, half-empty stadiums in September because the pennant race has been over since July.

An extra tier of playoffs will keep more teams in contention and more fans interested. Good idea. An extra tier of playoffs will mean a shorter regular season. Better idea. Postseason baseball is baseball at its best--Or have you forgotten Francisco Cabrera?--and out-of-the-running baseball is the game at its worst. You haven't forgotten the post-May Angels of 1992.

Interleague play won't soil the sacred fabric of The Pastime, either. Dodgers-Angels, Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox--baseball has been sitting on a public-relations gold mine for 30 years and it hasn't so much as touched a shovel.

Southern California won't be hosting a World Series any time soon. But give us a Freeway Series every June and, for three days, we can pretend.

Building more Camden Yards.

If you can't tell Riverfront Stadium from Three Rivers Stadium, you are not alone. The boom period of baseball architectural expansion--late '60s, early '70s--coincided roughly with the fashion peak of the Nehru jacket, leaving us with a slew of interchangeable 50,000-seat cement batting doughnuts, the ugliest ballparks known to man.

Touch 'em all with a wrecking ball.

I used to think the only good ballpark was an old ballpark, but that was before I took a look around Baltimore's Camden Yards. The brick warehouse behind the right-field fence, the Art Deco clock atop the scoreboard, the idiosyncratic outfield dimensions--baseball isn't just played here, it is showcased. There isn't a Bigfoot monster truck within miles.

Soon, similar structures will grace Denver and Arlington, Tex. Others should be encouraged in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and, yes, Anaheim, which has never felt like a baseball park since the 1980 enclosure, explaining the last 12 years' worth of performance.

Burning down the card shows.

Just dip that $45 Frank Thomas in some lighter fluid, strike a match and find the closest auditorium charging $20 this weekend for Darryl Strawberry's autograph.

You knew baseball was headed in the wrong direction when they took the bubble gum out of the bubble-gum card packs, took the bubble-gum cards out of the bicycle spokes and converted it all into a multimillion-dollar bored-yuppie-needs-a-hobby industry. I don't want to see 10-year olds flashing $50 bills so they can buy Juan Gonzalez today and make a $30 profit tomorrow. I want them lined up along the first base dugout, waiting for Kirby Puckett to sign their gloves. For free.

Giving fans the vote.

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