Another season's about to begin, and for the moment, anything seems possible—even the Cubs in the Series. And in that hopeful moment, too, it seems that baseball might avert the disaster long in the making, might swerve just in the nick of time from the self-destructive course that players and owners alike have seemed hell-bent on pursuing to the bitter end.
Last week we listened in on Tim McCarver's engaging but overly optimistic reports on the state of the game. Joe Morgan, whose tenure as a player was as long as McCarver's and whose broadcast work has also been extensive, seems more willing to broaden his concerns and to temper them with skepticism. In his 1999 volume Long Balls, No Strikes: What Baseball Must Do to Keep the Good Times Rolling, Morgan (along with co-writer Richard Lally) begins with a reflection on the revitalization which the 1998 season breathed into the game—"This was the year baseball came out of his coma"—but, unlike McCarver, he is rightly cautious about the long-term effects of this boon. For Morgan, the reclamation project has only begun.
When he turns to the specifics of what needs to be done, Morgan begins to reveal a bias which is at first endearing, then a bit maddening, and which at last seems rather self-serving. You see, Joe Morgan is a Hall of Fame player, an MVP, a world champion, one of the best offensive second basemen ever. And that is the problem with this book. Who he is skews everything he has to say. Just as McCarver, the average player but ultra-observant catcher, sees the game as an analyst of skills and situations and nuts and bolts, so Morgan, the superstar with deep loyalties and sharp opinions, wants to see the game as Joe Morgan would have it be.
In an early and important chapter, "Taking Care of Labor Pains," Morgan lays out fairly clearly the power-struggle between the baseball owners, who want some revenue-sharing plan that will likely involve player salary caps, and the players, who refuse to have their market value limited in any way. So far, so good. The basic problem that led to the 1994 strike, and that is more or less unresolved, seems pretty clear. But then Morgan's devotion to the players' union, of which he was a charter member, kicks in, and he makes some rather dubious analogies:
Before the players won free agency in a landmark arbitration case, something called the reserve clause tied us to an organization for life. Once a team signed a player, it literally owned him. Just imagine that. You had no say in where you could work until the day you retired. There were millions of other people laboring under the same onerous terms, but most of them were living on the wrong side of a wall in Germany, or in a Chinese commune.
When he turns from off-the-field disputes to his suggestions for improving the game or restoring it to it former glory, Morgan sees himself as the prototype for how the game should be played. For example, he wants the see the stolen base resurface as a key element of offensive baseball. Now it just happens that Morgan himself was a prolific base stealer, especially during his glory years with the Cincinnati Reds.
Further on, in the chapter entitled "Don't Kill the Umpires! (Just Teach Them the Strike Zone)," Morgan offers a diatribe against— guess who—the notorious "pitcher's umpires." Of course, we remember that Morgan spent his 22 years in the league as a tremendous hitter, and a look at league ERAs and home run totals from 1998 through 2001 hardly suggests that hitters are being squeezed.
Morgan's final chapter, addressing the racial disparities in a game that has often been at the epicenter of race issues in America since Jackie Robinson's first game in 1947, is more persuasive. While some modest gains have been registered since Morgan's book appeared, blacks are still underrepresented as managers and in high-level administrative positions.
A Fan's Case
Broadcaster Bob Costas's book, Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball (2000), is the best of the recent reports on the state of the game. Perhaps, as Costas's subtitle hints, it is his status as a fan (albeit a very highly paid one) that gives him the necessary objectivity to spread the blame. He is also an erudite and eloquent spokesman for the game.
Costas observes that he "invariably wind[s] up being described by detractors and admirers alike as a 'traditionalist.' " By contrast, he sees himself as a realist—"In short, I'm a Bull Durham guy, not a Field of Dreams guy"—and one perceives that he's trying to gain credibility for his common-sense approach. He is the mediator, the one interested in "drawing distinctions between real progress and mere change." Costas manages this tone with only a touch of self-defensiveness; both his ideas and his delivery give the reader assurance that all can be well, if players, owners, and fans can only subjugate their collective desires to the grand game itself.
What distinguishes Costas's assessment of baseball's fundamental labor woes is his willingness, like the medieval physician, to let a little blood in order to cure the disease. Unlike Morgan and McCarver, Costas draws upon a diverse background among the various major sports, and when he looks at the revenue-sharing schemes of the NBA and NFL, he doesn't hesitate to point out baseball's archaism: "Major League Baseball is … flunking remedial economics."
As of 2002, revenue sharing has already been implemented, and the owners proposed to increase it in their offer to the players early in December. Some of the lessons Costas and others were preaching (Morgan included) seem to have been learned. But when the players association finally issued their counterproposal, just a couple of weeks ago, they rejected this plan—because it would restrict the ability of the richest teams, the Yankees in particular, to spend on free agents at an ever-increasing rate.
As it happens, Costas differs most profoundly from Morgan when it comes to his assessment of the players union, which both men argue was a necessary and noble creation. Costas speaks of Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, baseball's labor pioneers, with as much reverence as any former player might. But he speaks from the fan's perspective when he adds, "Here's the problem: We have devolved to the point where money is the only consideration of these union men, where all appeals to consider values beyond the crassest self-interest are viewed as naïve at best and ridiculous at worst . …It is greed and ego cloaking itself in a shroud of moral superiority." Amen.
Costas's proposed salary-cap solution provides enough nuance to silence the most obvious "wage control" complaints. A few years ago, commissioner Selig provided a Senate subcommittee on antitrust with a steady stream of ambiguous conversation regarding the need for a salary-cap. The magic of Costas's proposal is his ability to show how it will actually help most major-league players financially. By imposing both a ceiling and a floor cap to team payrolls—Costas uses the figures 80 million as a maximum and 40 million as a minimum—competitive balance will be fostered in a way parallel to the effect of revenue-sharing.
The most ingenious element of his proposal is what Costas calls the "superstar" salary cap, whereby teams could only spend a designated percentage of their payroll on any single player. The great majority of players stand to profit from this, as Costas points out, but don't hold your breath waiting for the players association to accept it.
Unlike most devotees of the game, Costas doesn't regard another strike as a worst-case scenario. In fact, he suggests that it may require such an extreme expedient to make the two sides come to an agreement. He calls on fellow fans to "see the big picture, knowing that if this plays out as it might, sacrificing some or even all of the 2002 season will be well worth it if baseball finally establishes some equilibrium." Perhaps facing this dread possibility straight in the eye is the best way for all of us to prepare ourselves for the "tough love" that our beloved sport needs to experience.
The contending parties who rule the game are tampering with something very dear to us, something no amount of money could buy, something beyond dollars and cents. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald refers to the rigging of the 1919 World Series as an act of heretical proportions, of "play[ing] with the faith of fifty million people." Today, baseball is on the brink of another "crisis of faith." May the owners and players have the grace and wisdom to act for the good of the whole.
Michael R. Stevens is assistant professor of English at Cornerstone University.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner earlier examined baseball at the end of the 2001 World Series.
Michael R. Stevens also wrote an article for Books & Culture on T.S. Eliot.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Dictionary of the Future | Trendspotter Faith Popcorn on the words that will define our tomorrow. (Feb. 11, 2002)
Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)