Baseball is the greatest of all American games. No other sport has the tradition, the mythology, the heroes, and the heroics. Yet baseball is also in the midst of an upheaval unprecedented in its glorious history. Many of its traditions have been discarded, much of its mythology has been disproved, and too many of its heroes have entered drug clinics or let greed triumph over team spirit.
What makes baseball what it is—the good as well as the bad? Who are the game's heroes, and who its villains? What roles do managers play, and umpires and announcers and mascots and the media? What is the game's future? These are the questions that John Feinstein—bestselling author and sports journalist extraordinaire—examines in Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball.
As he did in his classic books on professional tennis (Hard Courts) and college basketball (A Season Inside), Feinstein spent one entire season examining the game from the inside. He had access to general managers, who gave him never-before-revealed information on trades and the maneuverings behind these trades. He looks at managers Tony LaRussa and Jim Leyland to examine strategy and the psychology of success; he puts Tommy Lasorda under the microscope, showing the frustrating decline of a once-great franchise and the pain resulting from the tragic death of Lasorda's son. Feinstein answers questions about escalating salaries, reveals the identities of the real controlling forces in the game, explains why the owners so totally despised commissioner Fay Vincent, and graphically illustrates the financial state of the game as well as the pressures, the politics, and the joys that come with playing, managing, negotiating, and simply surviving a 162-game season.
Above all are still the players, and this is what makes Feinstein's book so special. He gives us intimate portraits of such longtime superstars as Cal Ripken, Jr. and George Brett, as well as revealing glimpses—some flattering, some not so flattering—of such newer stars as Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonds, and Ken Griffye, Jr. Beyond the obsession with money and salaries, Feinstein knows it's the players who make and break the game. In Play Ball, we hear stories of how they were shaped; see how stardom—or lack of stardom—further shapes them; we finally understand what it means to be a major league baseball player, in every possible sense.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
On the night of October 18, 1992, a baseball fan named Francis T. Vincent, Jr., sat down in his Greenwich, Connecticut, home to watch Game Two of the World Series. He had missed Game One the previous evening because he had been at a wedding reception and, like a lot of fans, was curious to see whether the Toronto Blue Jays could bounce back after having lost the opener to the Atlanta Braves.
Vincent watched for four innings. Then he turned off his TV and went to bed. “I tried to watch the game and just see the players and what they were doing,” he said. “But I couldn’t. Everything seemed to remind me of the owners. After a while, I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
In a sense, Fay Vincent spoke for all baseball fans. The fact that he had been the game’s commissioner for three years before being hounded out of office in September explains the animosity he felt toward his former employers. But even for someone who has never run baseball or, for that matter, worked in or known anyone connected to the game, it has become increasingly difficult to turn on the television or go to the ballpark and enjoy the simple pleasure of the national pastime.
Like Vincent, fans do not just see Cal Ripken or Kirby Puckett; they see men making six million dollars a year. You pay for your ticket—at higher and higher prices—and realize what you are doing is handing your money over to a group of men who, for the most part, could not care less about anyone involved in the sport except themselves. You want to get excited about your team’s prospects for 1993, but with all the free-agent signings and switches, you don’t even know who the hell is on your team, Or whether your team will even be playing at all.
“Owning a baseball team makes you a part of the most exclusive club in the country,” says Don Fehr, who has run the Major League Player’s Association for almost ten years. “It’s more exclusive than the U.S. Senate and it’s like no other club of sports owners because baseball is exempt from antitrust laws. Because of that, these are people who honestly believe that the rules of the world do not apply to them. These are people who extort millions of dollars from cities to build them stadiums and then are voted Citizen of the Year. When someone does call them on something, they are shocked and angry.”
Fay Vincent was fired because he called the owners on something. In no uncertain terms, he told them that they were fools if they went to war with the player’s union again. Their chief negotiator, Richard Ravitch, the new $750,000-a-year kid on the block, told the owners not to listen to Vincent, that there was nothing wrong with war. He told them they could win a war. But, he added, Vincent had to be removed from the picture.
And so Vincent was fired. “Only once in history has one nation bombed another into submission,” Vincent says. “And that was in 1945 when the weaponry was unique. The owners can’t win this war, but they want to fight it anyway.”
The owners, led by their newly appointed mouthpiece, Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, vehemently deny wanting anything but peace with the players. And yet, on December 7—a fitting date—they announced that they would reopen the union contract a year early. It should be noted that the last seven negotiations between these two groups have resulted in a work stoppage. In other words: war.
“Cheap billionaires fighting with whiny millionaires is how the public will see this,” Vincent says. “It will be a disaster if it occurs.” Fehr, who had hoped until the last minute that the owners would reconsider their hard-line position, agrees with Vincent. “If you take away the thrill and expectation of baseball games for an extended period of time—again—you will hurt the game greatly,” he says. “Because I think at this point in time there are people who won’t come back.”
Fehr knows that has been said before. And he believes that, ultimately, baseball will survive. Baseball always survives. As Tony LaRussa, the manager of the Oakland Athletics, says, “The game is better than all of us.”
No doubt it is. But these are ugly times if you love baseball. If you aren’t reading about Marge Schott and her racist, bigoted comments, you’re reading about a possible lockout. Or about franchise shifts. Or player shifts (during one three-day period in December no fewer than thirty-five free agents signed with new teams). Or the dire problems teams will face in 1994 when the TV golden egg becomes a lot less golden.
If you live in New York, you wonder what will happen when George Steinbrenner regains control of the Yankees on March 1. Will Buck Showalter, the bright young manager, still be around in July? If you live in Seattle, you wonder if you will ever see a contender. In San Francisco you wonder if there will ever be a new ballpark. In St. Petersburg you are almost convinced you won’t live to see a major-league team arrive, no matter how many times you’re told it will happen. In Baltimore, after going through a joyous eighty-nine-victory season in a gorgeous new ballpark, you wonder why owner Eli Jacobs refuses to spend a nickel to improve the team. The answer to that one is easy: Jacobs’s other businesses are going bankrupt and he is loath to touch the $20-million profit he made with the Orioles. In all likelihood, he will be forced to sell the team.
And yet, amid all the predictions that baseball will kill itself off, you know better. Twenty-five years ago, following the 1968 Year of the Pitcher, when no one could score a run, the doomsayers said baseball was done for, that football had replaced it as the national pastime, that baseball would sink into gradual oblivion. Now, games take much too long, pitchers can’t throw strikes, postseason games start so late that no baseball-crazed kid (the next generation of ticket buyers) can possibly stay up to watch, and owners refuse to police themselves, so the doomsayers are rampant again. This time, it is basketball that is replacing baseball and the impending oblivion will befall us quickly rather than gradually.
Oblivion won’t happen, though, because as usual, LaRussa is right.
Is Barry Bonds’s $43.75-million contract the ceiling that salaries inevitably must reach? Perhaps, perhaps not. But skyrocketing salaries are not the real problem in the game (the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, and Lost Angeles Dodgers warmed the hearts of purists in 1992 by spending over $40 million apiece to win seventy-three, seventy-two, and sixty-three games respectively). The problem is the lack of a level playing field. Over the long haul, teams in Seattle and Cleveland and Milwaukee simply cannot compete with teams in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta until and unless there is revenue sharing.
In 1991, according to an economic study commissioned by the owners, the twenty-six major-league teams showed a net profit of approximately $98 million. That was down from 1990 and way down from 1989, but it was still a substantial profit. If the teams had divided the money equally, each team would have walked away with a profit of just under $4 million. That is far more equitable and, in the end, makes the game far more competitive than having one team net $20 million while another loses $15 million.
“It is a simple fact that every team cannot make money every year,” says Fehr, a forty-four-year-old midwesterner who once worked for George McGovern when he was young and idealistic. “But there is an assumption that clubs are troubled now because of labor relations. That is wrong. Clubs are troubled because their revenue-sharing methods are forty years out of date.”
The sad thing about writing a book about baseball in the 1990s is that it is impossible to do so without getting into the financial and structural issues addressed above, issues that are far too complex to explain in a few pages and far too tedious to explain completely.
Baseball is a big, often brutal business. The days when players stayed with one team for their entire careers are as far gone as the days of the twenty-five-cent hot dog. But baseball is worth saving and it is worth caring about, even with its myriad problems.
When I started this project, I was warned by friends who cover the sport to be prepared to deal with a group of selfish, spoiled, arrogant athletes. I met some players who fit that description to a T. Barry Bonds, he of the aforementioned $43.75-million contract, told me he wouldn’t talk to me unless he was paid for the interview. When I told him that reporters don’t pay to talk to news sources, he said, “I’m not talking and if you use my name in the book, I’ll sue you.”
See you in court, Barry.