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Jewish World Review August 28, 2002 / 20 Elul, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

Baseball, broken, can be fixed: 15 minutes with George Will | George F. Will can't hit a slider, can't make the throw from deep short and, as readers of his syndicated newspaper columns know, bats only from the right side.

But in addition to his superstar conservative political commentary and writing, Will has become arguably the country's most visible - and virtually unconditional - lover of baseball.

Will is no bleacher bum in a bow tie. He's written columns about the joys and woes of baseball. He's also written best-sellers like "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball" and "Bunts: Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose and Other Reflections on Baseball."

And he even served on a recent commission formed by Major League Baseball to come up with ways to modernize its have-and-have-not economics and make the game more competitive.

Many believe baseball is not merely in a deep slump, but has been fatally ruined by everything from TV to greed to steroids. Not Will.

The man who jokes that rooting for the hapless Chicago Cubs as a kid made him "gloomy, pessimistic, morose and conservative" still believes the national pastime is worthy of America's love and respect.

With baseball's strike date looming this Friday, I talked to Will by phone on Wednesday from his office in Washington, D.C.:

Q: Is Major League Baseball about to commit suicide or is this going to be a more like a self-administered mercy killing?

A: Well, if baseball goes on strike, it will be irreparably injured. Baseball is not yet all the way back from the '94 strike. If you take out the factors of the new ballparks and a couple new teams, it is clearly behind where it was in '94.

Q: Attendance-wise.

A: Yes. Attendance is down 5.7 percent this year, in part because ticket prices are up 38 percent since '98, which is in part because of payroll inflation.

Q: At its best, what is baseball?

A: At its best, it's not only a beautiful game, extraordinary difficult to play - as everyone in America knows because every American is a failed baseball player - it is a connection with the American past unique among all sports.

There's a reference to the game of "base," as it was called, in the diary of a soldier at Valley Forge. So we're in our third century of playing baseball - which is, of course, part of the problem. I don't know if you read my recent column on this.

Q: About the archaic economics of baseball?

A: That's right. In fact, baseball has an economics system that was in place before the invention of television or radio or the internal combustion engine or flight. It was in place in the 1870s, when the National League was formed, in which all revenues were treated as local, whereas, in fact, what you're selling is a national product, not a local product.

Q: Has baseball outlived its value to a modern society?

A: No. There's a tremendous appetite for baseball. Look at the attendance. In 1951, in perhaps the most famous baseball game ever played, played in New York City, the nation's largest city, featuring two New York teams, at the end of a stupendous pennant race, at the end of a play-off, Bobby Thompson hit the home run in front of about 25,000 empty seats.

Back then for a team to draw a million in a season was considered extraordinary. After a while, 2 million was considered extraordinary. Today 3 million is quite common.

Q: Baseball has done a better job of marketing and selling itself in the last 50 years. But what about the game itself - what is it at its worst?

A: I don't understand what you're getting at.

Q: The actual game itself, as we watch it today. Maybe too many home runs, no pitching, maybe it's watered-down talent .

A: I don't think it's watered down at all. In fact, I think it's played better than ever before. Look, until 19-whatever-it-was through the '50s we had 16 major league teams. Until 1947, all the players came from American white men. Then we discovered African-Americans.

Today, in a population of 280 million in this country, we draw upon not only that - black and white Americans - but we also draw upon the enormous reservoir of talent in Latin America, and Japan and Korea.

We have about 16 countries represented in the big leagues today.

It is a sign of the health of the game, a sign of the astonishing talent pool, that three of the most common surnames in baseball today, three of the top five, are Rodriguez, Martinez and Perez.

Q: Do you think young kids are still attracted to baseball the way they used to be?

A: Not as much as they used to be, because, again, baseball used to have the undivided attention of this country between April and October - between spring training and when Pitt played Penn State.

Now there are about seven weeks between the last NBA championship game and the first NFL pre-season game, so the competition for the sports dollar, for the attention of the sports fan, for space on the sports pages, for time on sports talk radio, is intense.

Q: Do you accept the premise that baseball has been ruined?

A: Certainly not. Good heavens no. Ruined? Seventy million North Americans are going to pay to go to baseball games this year. That's not chopped liver. That is more people than will attend all the NFL, NBA and NHL games combined this year.

Q: What is most wrong with baseball and what is the George Will solution?

A: What is most wrong with it is the absence of competitive balance under this archaic economic system that produces revenue disparities between the richest teams and poorest teams of a degree that are not tolerated in the NBA or the NFL.

The solution to this is suggested by the blue-ribbon commission report, of which I was one of four authors, submitted to baseball in July 2000. The members were me, Rick Levin the president of Yale, Paul Volker and former Sen. George Mitchell.

Our two principal recommendations, which became elements of the owners' collective bargaining proposal, were, first, sharing 50 percent of local revenues and, second, a luxury tax - what we called "a competitive balance tax" - on the top portion of the biggest payrolls.

That would be a disincentive to spend too much and the revenues from that tax would be distributed to the poorer teams. And that is what we are arguing about today.

Q: So it's going to take what amounts to good old-fashioned share-the-wealth socialism almost to save America's game?

A: Of course, but it's not socialism. When you have 30 shoe companies competing with one another, it is perfectly reasonable when these 30 independent entities compete with one another for a few to be driven out of business and a few to become very dominant.

But 30 major league teams are not 30 independent entities competing with one another. They are part of a single entity that exists to equalize conditions - the leagues - so that there can be 15 competitive games a day.

Q: You seem to have a special fondness for the Pirates. Why is that?

A: I grew up in central Illinois but both my parents were from western Pennsylvania. Both went to Thiel College. My grandfather when he died was a Lutheran minister in Donora. And it was on a trip to visit him when I was nine in 1950 that I saw my first major league game, and I saw it in Forbes Field.

Q: What a beautiful old place that was, eh?

A: It sure was.

Q: Is it true that you owned a stake in the Pirates?

A: It is not true. I never owned a portion of any team. I was on the board of directors of the Padres and the Orioles. I did actually own one share of the Cubs a long time ago, when shares were outstanding.

Q: Who is your favorite baseball player and why?

A: Ernie Banks. He was the only serious player the Cubs had when I was growing up.

Q: I saw something on the History Channel the other day that showed clips of Roberto Clemente in the 1971 World Series against Baltimore, when he was 37 years old and hitting triples and throwing guys out at third on the fly from right field. Did you ever see Clemente play?

A: Oh sure. Absolutely.

Q: When I saw those clips it reminded me how much I used to like baseball and why I don't like it now. There seemed to be something about the way Clemente played and ran, and he obviously loved the game. Maybe it was because he weighed 190 pounds instead of 240. I don't know what it was.

A: Well, I'll tell you. You go to see Alex Rodriguez or Alphonso Soriano. Clemente was a stupendously good ballplayer. Rodriguez is even better. There's a lot of talent out there now.

Q: So what's going to happen on Aug. 30 - strike or no strike?

A: Well, I think they're clearly in the realm of splittable differences. They should be able to get a deal.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald