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TV REVIEWS : 'Trouble With Baseball' a Melancholy PBS Report

April 06, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER

The mixed messages surrounding the new baseball season are about as confusing as the terms of Barry Bonds' new contract with the San Francisco Giants. While National League fans are buzzing about the new kids on the blocks, the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, the same fans are griping about those crazy contracts (like Bonds' deal for six years and $44 million). There's a manic depressive mood hovering over both leagues, and it's not helped by "Frontline," with its melancholy report, "The Trouble With Baseball" (9 p.m. tonight, KCET Channel 28 and KPBS Channel 15; 8 p.m., KVCR Channel 24).

In order to winnow the confusion down to the up-front-and-personal, reporter Paul Judge and producer Michael Kirk zoom in on the stormy relations between Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and veteran Chisox catcher Carlton Fisk. Reinsdorf, a fast-lane Chicago lawyer and real estate developer, bought the White Sox in 1980 and then went after Fisk, unhappy after nine seasons with his boyhood team, the Boston Red Sox.

Fisk's $600,000 price tag marked a rise in player values corresponding with television's new interest in prime-time baseball. As TV revenues flooded the major leagues with unprecedented amounts of cash--1992 network sums alone are estimated at $13.5 million--so too did players' demands for a bigger piece of the cash pie.

What this money influx emphatically did not do, though, was turn baseball into a business. Professional baseball, by definition, has always been a business--a fact that could have been stressed more in this report. The purveyors of baseball nostalgia may yearn for the good old days when your team stayed your team and players remained loyal to a city, but it was a time when the baseball business was basically feudalistic, when players owned outright by owners had no professional options. Baseball took its time catching up with other entertainment industries.

The change felt by baseball lovers is the corporatizing of the sport: The report shows a guy phoning in to a Chicago radio station complaining that the new ballpark Reinsdorf built feels "mall-ish." Fisk doesn't seem to fit Reinsdorf's bottom line this year, and although he's a few games away from a record for most games played by a catcher, Fisk settled for a minor league contract. The smaller cities (the struggling Milwaukee Brewers is the model here) are also getting Fisk-ed, for their local TV revenues are a fraction of the big cities like Reinsdorf's. The solution would seem to be owner-player revenue sharing, but the big city owners aren't budging.

The sad, furrowed faces of Fisk, Reinsdorf, baseball commentator Peter Gammons, ex-players union leader Marvin Miller and Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mark Hornung suggest a sport, in the words of the title of Gammons' and Jack Sands' new book, "Coming Apart at the Seams." But it's a mood, and it will pass: The last time we checked, a good seat at Dodger Stadium was harder than ever to get.

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