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Inside Baseball : COMMENTARY

If MLB is so rich, how come it's not smarter?

June 01, 2008|Jim Litke | Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Somebody needs to ask Bud Selig: If Major League Baseball is so rich, how come it's not smarter?

Barely a week goes by without the commissioner reminding someone that for all its supposed woes, baseball posted record attendance and revenue last season. Selig would have us believe that's because of shrewd leadership; his critics argue the game is so good at selling itself that even Bud isn't bumbling or greedy enough to mess it up.

As the latest tempest-in-a-teapot brewing around baseball proves, the truth lies somewhere in between. But if Selig and the rest of the people in charge want to make sure today's kids come out to the ballparks as often and spend as freely as their parents do, they've got work to do so that the perception tracks closer to the reality.

A story making the rounds in Chicago this week has MLB as the villain in a wrangle over whether youth league teams can call themselves "Cubs," "White Sox," "Yankees" or even "Angels" for that matter, without putting some money in its coffers. The short answer to that very complicated legal question is yes.

MLB wasn't doing anything more than any business would to protect its trademark from freeloaders and in fact, the organization goes out of its way to make the game affordable to just about anybody who's interested. And it's not just out of charitable instincts; the kids playing the game now are baseball's future customers.

That's why MLB pumped $30 million into youth baseball programs last year, and that's on top of what member clubs sponsored in their own towns. But it says little good that for all those efforts, when it comes to "kid-friendly" issues, most people are still willing to believe the worst.

It could have something to do with ownership's willingness to sacrifice half of the 1994 season and the World Series to a labor dispute, to put postseason games on TV when most kids are headed for bed, or even the slow response to a decade of supersizing that saw players mysteriously get bigger and stronger by the day. And while those issues are largely part of the past, they still color the way people look at the game in the present.

What happened in the Tinley Park Bulldogs program is this: For years, the league had jerseys made up with the names of MLB teams sewn on the front without paying licensing fees, assuming that if they weren't using official MLB logos, they were exempt.

Wrong.

Any baseball team that wants to use one of MLB's names on its jerseys either has to buy a licensed product or gets permission. MLB doesn't actually employ detectives to keep an eye on diamonds across the land to catch counterfeiters, instead relying on dealers to tip them off to violations. That's how one of its lawyers came to call on the guy who'd been supplying uniforms to the Bulldogs for nearly 30 years.

SportStation owner Dave Glenn received a letter ordering the company to stop producing the uniforms under threat of legal action.

"When I told the coaches I couldn't make up the uniforms that way, after all these years, the first thing they asked was, 'Now they're telling us what we can name our own teams?'" Glenn recalled.

"I had to explain, 'No, they're just telling you what CAN'T name your teams.' Some guys were mad and personally, I think it's over the line. I think they're taking a very generous interpretation of the law for themselves, but I'm not a lawyer," he added. "And when I got the letter and talked to a lawyer, he told me my pockets weren't deep enough.

"And I had to agree," Glenn concluded. "Any single ballplayer could buy and sell me a hundred times, just on one year's salary."

The Bulldogs worked around the problem this way: They used to wear caps that said simply "Bulldogs" and put "Cubs," "White Sox" or the name of another team on their jerseys. Now they wear licensed MLB caps with team names on them, but the jerseys all read "Bulldogs" and the name of a city -- for example, Chicago, New York or Tampa Bay -- is sewn on beneath it.

"So MLB got some money out of it anyway," Glenn said.

And all's well that ends well?

"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure too many kids were upset by the whole thing," Glenn said. "Ninety-nine percent of the griping I've heard so far has been from the parents. I guess they've got enough time and money invested, and they want the best for their kids, so they're usually the ones who want to know why the uniforms don't look like the real thing."

The answer is simple. From where they sit, baseball might still look like a kid's game. But from where Selig sits, it is first, foremost and forever a business. Pretending otherwise is what got him in trouble in the first place.

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