Long Balls, No Strikes: How Baseball Can Keep the Good Times Rolling

Long Balls, No Strikes: How Baseball Can Keep the Good Times Rolling

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by Joe Morgan, Richard Lally
     
 

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Nobody loves baseball more than Joe Morgan. He's proved it with his hall-of-fame performance on the field and his brilliant color commentary in the broadcast booth. Bob Costas says, "There may not be anyone alive who knows more about baseball than Joe Morgan.See more details below

Overview

Nobody loves baseball more than Joe Morgan. He's proved it with his hall-of-fame performance on the field and his brilliant color commentary in the broadcast booth. Bob Costas says, "There may not be anyone alive who knows more about baseball than Joe Morgan.

Editorial Reviews

Andrew O'Hehir

"Baseball at its best is a sport of continual anticipation," writes ballplayer-turned-broadcaster Joe Morgan in his new book. This is the season when baseball fans, especially those who only follow the game casually or occasionally, find the level of their anticipation kicked up a gear. Baseball's annual post-season tournament has now yielded the four teams competing for a spot in the World Series, in which the two survivors will do battle during the last week of October. American intellectuals have exhausted themselves (and their readers) by viewing the end of the baseball season as a metaphor, but it remains irresistible. As an edge returns to the weather across most of North America and our hemisphere begins to slide into the darkness, the summer-long dream state of baseball is suddenly transformed into a tense, structured drama with a certain conclusion.

But as Morgan is here to tell us, there is another, deeper narrative running under the surface of baseball history at the moment, and for all its familiarity it's not a comforting one. The star second baseman for the Cincinnati "Big Red Machine" championship teams of the mid-1970s, Morgan has become one of the most astute observers of baseball in his current job as a television commentator for NBC and ESPN. He wasn't mentioned among the best baseball broadcasters in Roger Angell's lengthy encomium to New York Yankees announcer Tim McCarver in a recent issue of the New Yorker, a regrettable omission that may result from Angell's East Coast bias. (Just as inexcusably, Angell also didn't mention longtime San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's voice Lon Simmons, whose droll, deadpan delivery and unbridled passion for the game sustained me through many a languorous California afternoon.)

Morgan isn't a self-styled Renaissance man in the McCarver manner, tossing around snippets from Milton and Shakespeare while watching a manager argue with an umpire. Nor is he a typical ESPN wag quoting hip-hop lyrics and Simpsons episodes. A poor speaker when he began his broadcasting career, Morgan has developed into an articulate, if blunt, spokesman for the spirit of old-fashioned hardball. His basic mode is that of a guy in a work shirt who dropped in at the barbershop to jaw with his buddies about the dumb things the manager did in last night's game or debate the finer points of the hit-and-run play.

Morgan reminds me a little of the stern black athletic coaches and vice principals who populated my school district when I was growing up. They commanded us like drill sergeants, demanding that we study hard, play hard and not talk back, then mystified us by charming our mothers with an almost courtly politeness. I'm sure there are certainly problems with this model of masculinity, but it seemed a lot more attractive than the monosyllabic-jarhead Caucasian variety.

There's still a stereotype in sports that black athletes have natural talent and white athletes are "heady" players who work hard. Morgan defied this mold by outworking everybody and employing his moderate athletic gifts to become one of the best all-around players of his era. He hit for power, he hit for average, he stole bases and manufactured runs and he was one of the toughest, smartest defensive second basemen the game has ever seen. He was a relentless fireplug, respected by opposing players and hated by opposing fans. (Just ask any Boston Red Sox supporter about Morgan's play in the 1975 World Series.) In retirement, Morgan has added to his tactical and strategic understanding of the game by learning the baseball industry -- the realm of team owners and executives, league officials, marketers and player agents -- inside and out. He has long been a voice in the wilderness regarding baseball's shameful off-field treatment of African-Americans. (Of the 35 major league managers hired since 1993, exactly one has been black or Latino.) But the unbearable whiteness in the stands and the executive suites isn't the only problem he sees today.

Baseball's predicament has forced Morgan into the role of sage, although his mind is more practical than philosophical. His essential message in Long Balls, No Strikes (written with Richard Lally, who also co-authored Morgan's Baseball for Dummies) is that the abyss into which Major League Baseball stared during the disastrous players strike of 1994 is now staring back. For all the sport's renewed popularity and prosperity after the 1998 season -- in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated the single-season home run record and the Yankees won an unbelievable 125 games -- the baseball business, Morgan argues, is still bent on self-destruction. When the current labor agreement between players and team owners expires in 2001, Morgan foresees a "long war" between the two sides, and suggests that "it's doubtful that the game can survive another lengthy walkout."

What Morgan doesn't say, and perhaps won't allow himself to think, is that it might not be such a bad thing. Surely baseball as a sport, and its unique position in American society, will not be destroyed if the entity called Major League Baseball is melted down, stripped of its bizarre exemption from antitrust law and reconstituted in some much different form. As things stand, establishing a rival baseball league is literally illegal, and for all the millions made by superstar players, the ordinary rules of collective bargaining between employers and employees don't apply. The only real leverage players have comes from their ability to go on strike, and we're likely to see another lengthy stoppage before the sport's future is resolved.

Given how badly baseball commissioner Bud Selig and the other egotistical zillionaires who run baseball have mismanaged it, it may be necessary to destroy this particular village in order to save it. As Morgan convincingly demonstrates in Long Balls, No Strikes, team owners are largely to blame for baseball's economic ills, from salary inflation to competitive imbalance to the long-simmering animosity between players and their employers. Fans often grouse about the exorbitant salaries paid to star players, without noticing that the owners, for all their whining and complaining, feverishly outbid each other in their eagerness to offer outrageous contracts. Before the 1998 season, for instance, it briefly appeared that superstar salaries had stabilized at a maximum of around $10 million a year. Then, in short order, free agents Bernie Williams, Mike Piazza and Kevin Brown -- fine players, but in my opinion not among the game's 10 best -- all signed new contracts in the $12 to $15 million range. When a real superstar, like the Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr., becomes eligible for free agency (as Griffey will after the 2000 season), no one knows what he will command. Say, $250 million over 10 years? Surely Ted Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves, or Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, or Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, baseball's answer to Beelzebub, will go that high.

The problem with these fabulous sums isn't their absolute size -- we live in long-boom capitalism, after all, and baseball players still make less money than movie stars or platinum-selling pop artists. While the average baseball salary is now well over $1 million, the median is only around $400,000, meaning that half the players make less than that. What's troubling is that only corporate deep-pockets franchises like the Braves, Dodgers and Yankees can afford major superstars' salaries. Smaller teams like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates can't compete for such high-priced talent, and so the best they can offer their fans at the beginning of each season is that they'll play hard and go down fighting. Every year some "small-market" team makes an inspirational little run to get the sportswriters excited. This year it was the A's, with a total payroll only slightly larger than Dodger Kevin Brown's salary, who stayed in the race for a playoff spot until mid-September. But none of the smaller teams has won the World Series since the Minnesota Twins in 1991 -- before the current inflationary spiral kicked in -- and no one in baseball thinks it will happen again anytime soon.

Morgan can be relied on to take the players' side, and he gamely argues that the struggling franchises in Kansas City, Minnesota, Montreal and Pittsburgh have been poorly managed and could make far more money in new stadiums or new cities. (Some owners and baseball authorities are now suggesting that these marginal teams cannot be competitive under current conditions and should be folded or banished to the minor leagues.) This may have some validity, but Morgan also admits that the solution to baseball's economic quandary is mutual compromise. The owners must find a way to share their revenues more equitably -- so that, for example, the Yankees' $50 million local TV contract is partly redistributed to teams in less lucrative markets. Then (but only then, in Morgan's view) the players must accept some form of aggregate or individual salary cap. It's not like this hasn't been tried; various versions of this system are employed in professional football, basketball, hockey and soccer.

Sounds easy, right? What's to fight about except the details? Well, the National Basketball Association, a league with nowhere near baseball's history of labor discord, nearly destroyed itself last year before the players capitulated on the salary-cap issue. As Morgan puts it, "You can take this to the bank -- baseball players will never accept a wage ceiling." Why not? Anyone who thinks contemporary ballplayers don't understand the game's history should read Morgan's book, in which the sense of historical outrage -- the sports world's version of the ancient hatreds of Belfast or Sarajevo -- is palpable and striking. As he says, "I think player animosity toward management is inscribed in our DNA."

Until a federal arbitrator's decision in 1976 created free agency for players not under contract, baseball's infamous reserve clause bound players to their teams literally for life. As Morgan puts it, "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." In 1947, the minimum salary in baseball was $5,000; in 1967, after two decades of steep inflation, it was $6,000. The winter after Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto won the Most Valuable Player award in 1950, he went to work in a clothing store to make a living. Even the head of the so-called players union was an advisor appointed by the owners.

In the 23 years since the Messersmith-McNally decision (named for the two players it liberated from bondage), all that has changed, to be sure. Even the most marginal big leaguers make six-figure salaries, and it's not unusual for a player to switch teams three or four times over the course of his career, accumulating millions along the way. Meanwhile, the owners have repeatedly tried to regain power over player movement. In 1981, they tried to short-circuit free agency, sparking a players strike that wiped out a third of the season. In 1987 and '88, they colluded with each other to ensure that no free agent got a better offer than the one tendered by his former team; this eventually cost them hefty damages in another arbitrator's judgment. During the '94 strike, the owners' objective was to impose a salary cap. But after shutting down the sport for nearly a year and causing its image irreparable damage, all they could manage was a modest "luxury tax" on the richer teams, which the likes of Turner, Murdoch and Steinbrenner can easily handle.

In short, we have millionaire adversaries, armed with lawyers and P.R. firms, who hate and mistrust each other as much as any opposing camps of coal miners and silk-hatted capitalists ever id. Given that scenario, Morgan's vision of 2001 as a day of reckoning for baseball seems increasingly plausible. Morgan quotes his NBC colleague Bob Costas as suggesting that a long strike might be necessary to create a radical reshaping of baseball economics, perhaps some form of player-owner partnership that would ensure the game's long-term survival. As painful as such a transition might be for traditionalists (and what baseball fan isn't a traditionalist?), I'd suggest that any price is worth paying if it gets baseball out of the hands of idiots like Bud Selig. Baseball's current commissioner -- formerly the owner of the ineptly run Milwaukee Brewers -- seems personally devoted to gutting the traditional National League and American League structures, further watering down the playoff system and generally turning the game into an anodyne entertainment for white suburban families.

Nothing else in Long Balls, No Strikes is as explosive as Morgan's doomsday prediction, but there's much for hardcore baseball fans to savor and only a few bits and pieces to spit out. Morgan of course detests the designated hitter, suggests that the modern emphasis on home runs instead of speed and fundamentals is ruining the game and believes that returning to the four-man rotation is the way to improve pitching. (Did you know that Warren Spahn won 23 games the season he turned 42? I didn't.) He claims, with some justification, that half of major league managers are clueless about the game. (In fairness, three managers he singles out for blistering criticism -- Bobby Valentine of the New York Mets, Jimy Williams of the Red Sox and Buck Showalter of the Arizona Diamondbacks -- made the playoffs this year.) He argues that Marvin Miller, the tough longtime head of the players union, is as important a figure in baseball history as Jackie Robinson. (Maybe.) With typical contentiousness, he suggests that his 1975 Reds could have beaten last year's great Yankee team. (Too close to call, but if that game occurs in the afterlife I'll be there rooting for Joe.) Long Balls, No Strikes is a must-read for serious fans, which makes it all the more regrettable that the book is plagued with so many typographical and factual errors, most of which can't be Morgan's fault (e.g. the reference on Page 227 to the nonexistent "Anaheim Mariners"). Morgan has a reputation as something of a conservative, both inside and outside baseball. He's been active in black Republican circles and refused to interview Fidel Castro during the broadcast of the Baltimore Orioles game in Havana in March. He has also refused to lobby Selig on behalf of his friend and former teammate Pete Rose, who is barred from entering the Hall of Fame because of his gambling. (In his book, Morgan suggests that if Rose publicly apologizes, his fate should be reconsidered.) But on racial as well as labor issues, Morgan remains an activist whose anger is tinged with sadness.

He writes movingly of how he almost quit baseball after leaving his integrated hometown of Oakland, Calif., to play minor league ball in the Jim Crow South, and of how he and other black players on the Houston Astros had to put up with abuse from racist manager Harry Walker. He has marshaled troubling evidence that while overt bigots like Walker may be gone from the game, baseball's pattern of racism remains undiminished. Not only are there almost no black managers or executives in baseball, but Morgan argues that few teams even bother to scout black inner-city players these days, ceding them to basketball or football while going after Sun Belt white kids and cheap Latino talent from the Caribbean.

Like most athletes, Morgan is fundamentally an optimist about baseball and about life, the kind of guy who believes that if we lose today we'll win tomorrow. It's also just possible that he has the clout to make people pay attention, and that he can spur black superstars like Griffey and Barry Bonds into action that baseball's mandarins won't be able to ignore. But even Morgan's up-with-people tone turns a bit melancholy when he considers this issue: "You wouldn't think I'd be writing this 50 years after the game's color line supposedly came down, 40 years after Rosa Parks, 35 years after Birmingham and Martin." A few pages earlier, in discussing baseball's abandonment of the urban player, he almost casually muses: "If I were 18 years old today, I probably wouldn't get the chance to play pro ball." For anyone who cares about the game, even Red Sox fans, that would have been a terrible loss.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Baseball is back, but it's not all the way back," writes Morgan. Having proved himself one of baseball's shrewdest television analysts for both ESPN and NBC, the Hall of Fame second-baseman brings his intelligence and knowledge to this savvy state-of-the-game evaluation of where baseball is and where it should go. With the help of Lally, Morgan convincingly argues that baseball's magical 1998 campaign was an aberration and that the game needs to revamp itself if it is to retain the popularity thrust upon it last year by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the remarkable success of the New York Yankees. Baseball junkies will appreciate his host of suggested improvements, ranging from raising the pitcher's mound (which was lowered after pitchers dominated the 1968 season) and standardizing the strike zone (which the league is trying to do this season) to a plea for more aggressive baserunning. They'll also find compelling his list of players who should be in the Hall of Fame (including two of his Big Red Machine teammates, Tony Perez and Davy Concepcion) and his criticisms of certain managerial chestnuts. Morgan intelligently discusses the game's labor issues, explaining the history that produced the players' union, while simultaneously arguing for a revenue-sharing plan that would give small-market teams a chance to compete. A provocative chapter notes the insidious ways in which race--and racism--still affect the game, both on and off the field. Tart and thoughtful, Morgan's opinions will be relished by anyone who knows and loves the game. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
Morgan, Baseball Hall of Famer and now ESPN commentator, has put together a very informative and interesting analysis of what went right with the 1998 professional baseball season, and what must be done to improve the prospects for the sport's popularity in the future. In individual chapters he analyzes some of the key aspects of the game, such as base stealing (he'd like to see more of it), pitching (raise the mound again), and umpiring (give them a break, they are human, but make them conform to the strike zone outlined in the rule book). He also highlights ten players who are attracting old and new fans to the stands, as well as the fight to put Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson into the Hall of Fame. The continuing battle against racism in recruitment and hiring and how the players' salary game is played are also covered. The book concludes with a brainstorming session with some of the game's most prominent players and officials offering their suggestions on how to improve America's favorite pastime. This book is directed toward devoted baseball fans, so only the teen familiar with current players and controversies will appreciate it. The author's writing style is much like his broadcasts, somewhat chatty, but downtoearth and full of interesting anecdotes and analysis. His fondness of the game is reflected in every sentence. My two teen daughters loved it. Index. VOYA CODES: 4Q 2P J S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 1999, Crown, Ages 14 to Adult, 289p, $25. Reviewer: Kevin Beach
Library Journal
Hall of Famer, five-time All-Star, and TV analyst, Morgan critically assesses the state of baseball today. While he praises 1998's banner season, lauding Yankee manager Joe Torre and other premier managers along with sluggers Sosa and McGwire, he strongly assails the game's faults. Among the "wrongs" he cites are umpires' peculiar strike zones, Hall of Fame voting--he favors considering his old Reds teammate Pete Rose but opposes "Black Sox" star Joe Jackson--and lack of TV revenue sharing. Sharpest is his complaint about the few minority members in managerial jobs. Included are radical suggestions for a better game. Controversial but persuasive, this book will draw serious sports readers.--Morey Berger, St. Joseph's Hosp. Medical Lib., Tucson, AZ Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After a monster 1998 season, baseball is back. But to Morgan, a Hall of Fame player and highly regarded analyst for ESPN, baseball still needs help in getting and keeping fans. Morgan goes point by point, describing what's best about baseball and what needs fixing. Secure in his status within the game, he isn't afraid to name names or step on a few toes. Morgan is blunt in his criticism of baseball's poor administration. He discusses why the leagues and teams repeatedly fail to hire qualified black and Latino players for management positions, and suggests ways to correct the imbalance. He notes the declining interest among African-Americans in playing and watching baseball, and offers steps to rekindle this interest, largely through an expanded presence in inner-city kids' lives. Officiating also comes under Morgan's microscope in a chapter with the self-explanatory title "Don't Kill the Umpires! (Just Teach Them the Strike Zone)," in which the author outlines how the Major Leagues, the players, and the umpires can unite in making officiating more consistent and therefore better. However, Morgan confines most of his observations and advice to the game on the field. He chides current managers for ignoring fundamentals, such as base stealing. And he offers advice on how to rein in the excessive scoring that detracts from the game's subtle balance between hitters and pitchers (raise the mounds for starters, shorten starting pitching staffs from five to four pitchers, don't overuse young hurlers). Naturally, Morgan's passion for the game doesn't permit him only to focus on the negatives. Endlessly citing baseball's charms (while addressing its miscues and shortcomings), Morgan identifiesthe players and managers most worth watching. He even playfully engages in the debate over which is the game's greatest team, the 1998 Yankees, or his own 1975�6 Cincinnati Reds. Lovers of baseball, detractors of baseball, and even those alienated from it—all will be drawn to this outstanding and outspoken, no-punches-pulled prescription for the ills of the Grand Old Game.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780609605240
Publisher:
Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/07/1999
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.31(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

Baseball Comes Back: '70, '66, and Other Wonders

The summer of 1998. This was the year baseball came out of its coma. It was a sweet grand slam of a season when two prodigious sluggers, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa, pushed their sport back to the forefront of the American consciousness. Fans, who had felt betrayed by the work stoppage of 1994, flocked back to the ballpark like true believers drawn to Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show.

Home runs fueled the revival. Every morning, people across the country would check the box scores to discover whether Mark or Sammy (or Junior Griffey or Greg Vaughn) had clobbered yet another "Big Fly." Devotees, casual fans, even lapsed baseball followers caught the fervor. We all surrendered to the spell of this race toward excellence. And the long balls were only part of the story. We were also drawn to the personalities who made 1998 a season of legend: Big Mac, Sammy, Junior, Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood, and the entire Yankee team all exuded character and class. They carried themselves like genuine heroes, men we could feel comfortable rooting for.

That hadn't been the case in recent seasons. Baseball's labor wars between the players and owners had soured fans on the game; they saw only villains on both sides of the dispute. Players like Albert Belle and Barry Bonds were considered antiheroes who won ballgames without winning public affection. Despite the extraordinary numbers they put up season after season, people often booed them wherever they played. And Albert and Barry, both of whom I like, weren't their only targets. Fans perceived many players to be cold,surly, and arrogant, unworthy of their accolades or embrace.

Throughout last year's magic summer, no one booed Sammy or Mark. They were gracious, humble, and accessible. Fans in enemy ballparks gave them standing ovations even while they were clubbing their team's brains into mush. I'd never seen anything like it. Neither had Mike Veeck, the senior vice-president of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, though he had heard of a similar phenomenon. As the son of legendary baseball entrepreneur Bill Veeck, Mike is steeped enough in baseball lore to compare the McGwire-Sosa home-run duel to another healing event. "My father," he told us, "was certain that I would never understand the impact Babe Ruth made on baseball in 1920 when he hit twice as many home runs as anyone else had ever done before. With those homers, the Babe single-handedly dragged baseball out of the doldrums caused by the White Sox when they fixed the 1919 World Series, the Black Sox scandal.

"Well, it turns out it was one of the few times Dad was wrong. Now I can understand Babe's impact because I just watched McGwire and Sosa pick baseball up on their shoulders and carry it to a new level. Society needs heroics, and these guys provided that. They were so decent, the way they pulled for each other, that by the time it was over, they were no longer just ballplayers. McGwire and Sosa had become different ways to spell joy."

Joey Gmerek, a die-hard Mets loyalist, who manages such high-profile rock bands as The Fixx and Splender, may have been speaking for all fans with his equally thoughtful explanation for the allure of these magnificent sluggers when he said, "It's all about innocence. There are few people in this country who didn't have their first pitch thrown to them by their dads. It's a rite of passage, like the wafer in Holy Communion, a baptism, or a bar mitzvah. That catch becomes a connection to our fathers and to ourselves, to every child who ever threw a ball.

"That's what McGwire and Sosa brought us back to last season. You know, if Bill Clinton had shown up when McGwire hit that record-breaking home run, I really believe the crowd would have booed. Clinton would have been an intruder on our memories and dreams. He's a character from the tabloids, which give us nothing but stories of defeat and disappointment. McGwire and Sosa gave us a chance to celebrate genuine accomplishment. We needed that."

Baseball needed them, and they needed each other. I'm convinced that while Mark might have broken Maris's record on his own, he would not have hit 70 if Sammy hadn't pursued him. Seventy. Let's savor that. I mean, that number is in another galaxy. You can't go that far without someone driving you. As a former player, I was most impressed by the way McGwire and Sosa raced passed each home-run milestone without pausing. You often see players fall into mini-slumps when they close in on a record. McGwire and Sosa rarely slowed down. When they were on the field, neither seemed to feel the pressure of Maris's 61.


From the eBook edition.

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