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Robert E. Murphy Headshot

What's Wrong With Baseball? Money, to Start With

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Recently a couple of old baseball stars named Gibson and Jackson -- National Leaguer pitcher and American League hitter -- have been pushing a book that they've published, bantering about who would have got the best of whom and comparing the game that they knew with the game they see today.

"I don 't know if the game has changed," Bob Gibson, now 74, told George Vecsey of The New York Times, "but the people have changed."

Actually the game changed radically in the decade after Gibson retired, which was the latter half of Reggie Jackson's career. They are being presented now as virtual contemporaries, but in fact Gibson played in one era, while Jackson, now 63, played in two. A quick glance at their year-by-year records reveals this immediately. Gibson pitched his entire career, from 1959 to 1975, for one team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Jackson batted from 1967 to 1987 for four teams. When Gibson retired, the designated hitter had just begun to transform the American League and divide the game, and free-agency, an even more transforming force, was just a-borning. It was the cause of Jackson's being traded that off-season by his original franchise, the Oakland A's, and the following year he signed one of the earliest mammoth free-agent contracts, for five years and $3 million, with the New York Yankees. Reggie Jackson was the face of a brand new ballgame.

As the 2009 playoffs proceed and the game of baseball continues to enthrall us with matches like the Minnesota-Detroit one-game decider last Tuesday, I've been thinking, with a nudge from Messrs. Gibson and Jackson, about the ways that the game has changed in the years that I've been watching it, which stretch back to about the time that young Bob Gibson began firing fastballs and darting sliders in the old Sportsman's Park in St. Louis.

No surprise: I think that it has changed mainly for the worse.

Having been badly burnt as a boy by a team president named Walter O'Malley, I have little retrospective admiration for old-time baseball owners. Their generally tight-fisted management, enabled by the unjust reserve clause that restricted players' freedom and income, almost necessarily spawned a severe reaction from the players and their union. But that reaction has, over the past three decades and more, opened a floodgate of money that has distorted and corrupted the game.

Major league baseball players simply make far, far too much money for the good of the game and its fans. Money is too important to be rendered meaningless, which is what happens when anyone receives extravagantly more than he needs for acquiring every conceivable material comfort and satisfaction. Many, perhaps most, players earn dollars that are simply symbolic -- that is, having no value except self-congratulation. A player earning $12 million a year who leaves his team and city to make $13 million elsewhere does not, if he is changing places for the money only, improve his life in any way, and each one who does so further erodes the bond between fan and team that is -- or used to be -- one of sports' greatest values.

An outstanding example of such a player is Johnny Damon, who starred for the Boston Red Sox earlier in this decade and was a key figure in the glorious 2004 World Series triumph that was their first in 86 seasons -- eight-and-a-half decades during which that city' earnest fans writhed in humiliation while, just down the coast, the New York Yankees piled up dozens of national championships. But then, in 2005, when Damon's contract ended, there were those contemptible Yankees trying to woo him away from the city and the fans who loved long-haired, bearded Johnny, and whom he appeared to love back.

Here's what he was reported to have said at the time:

"There's no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know that they're going to come after me hard. It's definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It's not what I need."

What the Yankees actually offered the 32-year-old Damon was an extra year. Quite reasonably, for a player passing his prime, the Sox limited their proposal to three seasons. When the Yankees went for four, Johnny Damon headed south. He also assented to a Yankee policy that deprived him of his signature locks and whiskers, features that, aside from being an essential part of his identity, he had turned into fast cash via television commercials.

Now I know full well that at this point many readers are shaking their heads in my direction and asking, "Hey Murphy, would you turn down $13 million?" (That's the per annum in Damon's Yankee contract.) Well, yes, I would if I were already getting $39 million from the team that I was emotionally and historically bonded to. To use Damon's own words, it would not be what I needed. Besides, after three years, he could still earn more money, maybe not $13 million, but certainly more than he'd need, and closer to what he would actually deserve

And here's the rest of the story: While Johnny Damon and hundreds of other players are making far more money than they need -- and many of them pumping poisonous steroids into their bodies to extend their earning-power -- the rank and file of baseball fans are being required to spend more money than they can afford to watch a ballgame. The better seats in the two new ballparks that opened in New York this season cost in the hundreds of dollars, with premium behind-the-plate tickets at Yankee Stadium topping out at $2500 before management noticed that, in a deep recession, the center-field camera revealed them to be glaringly empty, and mercifully slashed the price by half. Even the lower number is difficult to conceive. Anyone who is willing to pay a four-figure price for a single seat to a regular-season baseball game has too much money in his pocket, just as do many of the men on the field.

It may be that Bob Gibson was underpaid for much of his great career, or that his wearing the same uniform for nearly two decades was due in part to an onerous reserve clause, but the changes that were needed to make the game fairer to players have yielded to greed and disloyalty that have alienated those players from the fans and communities that they used to represent and be identified with. Some players from past decades are envious of today's multimillionaires, but at least one, a contemporary of Gibson, has vividly expressed, without any trace of that emotion, his own alienation from the modern game

Tony Kubek, Yankee shortstop at the end of their four-decade run of glory from the '20s to the '60s, then longtime broadcaster for the Yankees and NBC, decided after 20 years of free-agency that he no longer cared about major league baseball. During the players' strike of 1994, he sued for what he calls a "divorce." And he has never gone back -- not, he insists, to watch a single game.

"I just got a different life," he said this summer, when he was inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "People have said, 'you must hate baseball,' but I never said that because I don't. I didn't like some of the things I saw. I'm not averse to either side making money, but money was becoming more important than the game itself."

See what money does? I've got so wrapped up in it that I've left no room to get to the designated hitter and other things that bug me about the modern game. Next time.