Strike Four

At the risk of staying in the game when my best stuff has deserted me, I just want to pitch a few lines before my next quality start. Any season ticket holders can relax, it is not just my arm that is on ice. A lengthy essay is already more finished than not, but circumstances dictate that those recollections must wait a day or two before getting called up to the show.

In the meantime, at the end of what must certainly stand as an unhappy day for the national pastime, Boston excepted, a few remarks on the endangered species that is the innocence of baseball seem to be in order. We are wont to forget that this is, at its heart, a game, and a child’s game at that. It remains the prerogative of adults to ruin it for everyone. I am fond of remarking that people tend to take matters so seriously because the stakes are often so low, but the same cannot be said of the professional game. The pinnacle of achievement, the upper floor of the late Harold Seymour’s house of baseball, the bigs are the object of innumerable dreams and aspirations. Even in hard times, America remains the world’s treasure house, so vast fortunes are involved, and countless lives are supported by the major leagues from the lowly peanut barker to the grandiose magnates who can break the hearts of entire cities. Is it any surprise that egos commensurate to such wealth have emerged, with swollen heads and shrunken consciences as seem to afflict the sucking dog tick Scott Boras, whose entire existence appears dedicated to enriching himself through the inflated salaries of a talented cadre of players?  Yes, he does so at the expense of the owners, who can certainly foot the bill, but ultimately it is the fans who suffer most as wealth is drained out of cities that have struggling schools and underpaid teachers in order to shower an otherwise perfectly ordinary few with lucre beyond measure. One of the few pleasures in rooting for the Nationals these days is that our club does not have any players good enough to fall under his thrall. Unfortunately, the likes of Gene Orza, odious champion of baseball’s answer to law enforcement’s blue code of silence, cannot be avoided by any fan.

Those who know me, appreciate that my family comes from a strong labor background, that my grandfather fought the good fight in an era when baseball bats did not miss strikes but hit strikers. He actually fought, and regretably failed, to free baseball from the tyranny of the reserve clause. Let me be clear, the time was once that the Player’s Union stood for something truly honorable, a fair deal for the men who played the game, a living wage and pension plan, the right to collective bargaining. Today, I struggle to see the likes of Joe Hill in the foul-mouthed entertainment lawyers who wrap themselves in the valorous struggle of workingmen past, and I shudder to think of what will happen in 2011 when the current CBA expires. The MLBPA is necessary, since management will almost always enrich itself at the cost of labor, but when Union representatives tacitly defend the rights of employees to avoid punishment for the willful use of banned drugs, to break the rules, to cheat, what is necessary is made little more than a necessary evil. This is not what the MLBPA should be.

I have never been part of a union, but I am big enough of a fan of organized labor to tell you that on page 46 of the AFL-CIO song book, you can read the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Other songs in that worthy volume tell of violence and starvation wages. In today’s big leagues, the average player makes $500,000 per year, and the superstars have annual contracts that are larger than the budgets for small towns and villages across the land. Do not mistake my purpose, I recognize that professional athletes have always done better than the average working joe, and to me, half a million per year seems a reasonable ballpark figure for the players who never make the cut on our fantasy baseball teams, give or take, well take a grand or two. My concern is the superstars, the ones worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Surely, this is too much?  Surely, they can live far better than 99.9% of the world’s population on half of their wages, on even a tenth of that sum?  Have we abandoned the old adage that cheaters never prosper?   When salaries are manipulated to the extent of today’s game, it is hardly any surprise that this is the case, that players are breaking the rules as if they were maple bats, and that incentive clauses rewarding power result in facile records based on that woeful acronym, PEDs.  Unfortunately, the sucking dog ticks and the practitioners of silence have no interest in a fair shake, it profits them little.  There is, after all, another song in the AFL-CIO song book, no less a tune than Solidarity Forever, which once upon a time caused shivvers to run down the spines of company bosses and business tycoons. One lyric keeps running the bases in my mind, “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold.” When it comes to our national pastime, whose power, whose hoarded gold?

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