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Jewish World Review July 26, 2002 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Choosing up sides to play a great game | If, as has been hinted, one of the 30 major league baseball teams declares that it cannot meet its payroll. . . .

Or if, in the coming months, the major league players decide to go out on strike again to protest the inhumane salaries and conditions under which they are forced to work. . . .

Or if the owners come up with a scheme to lock the players out. . . .

If any of those things happens, here is an idea.

Before the world begins to wring its collective hands and moan, "Oh, baseball may die," take a step back and remember that there is nothing at all ailing baseball.

Baseball -- the game -- is not ill.

Major League Baseball -- capital letters, the corporation -- is, in fact, in woeful shape. But that's a company, not a sport. The company's sick -- the sport is fine.

There's no fixing Major League Baseball, the conglomerate.

But baseball -- the game -- is standing in the wings, ready to help.

Here's what should be done, when and if Major League Baseball screeches to a halt:

Choose up sides.

In every big-league town, hold tryouts. Anyone can show up and show his stuff. One rule: You have to live in the city where your team plays, or at least in a strictly defined metropolitan area. If your uniform says "Chicago" or "Detroit" or "St. Louis," you have to reside there full-time. No exceptions.

One other rule, and this one will be controversial:

No one who has ever been paid a salary for playing baseball -- even on the minor league level -- is eligible. The new baseball will have to start over; everyone on the new teams will be someone who loves to play baseball, but has never received a cent for it.

Which brings us to the money.

Pay the new Cubs and Yankees and Cardinals and Tigers and Phillies a fee to be worked out in advance -- maybe $50,000 a summer, maybe more. Plus first-class travel. A very nice stipend for living a dream under the bright sun -- and the guys in the uniforms would probably do it for free. Each player would receive the same amount. (The current average salary for big-league players is in excess of $2 million.)

But what about the skill level, you ask. Would these new players be as good as the current big leaguers?

Of course not. Not even close. But baseball is supposed to be a pastime -- not for the players, but for the fans. What makes the pastime enjoyable -- or at least what should -- is sitting outdoors in a relaxed setting, not spending a lot of money, just letting the hours go by watching players you like. Going to a game should not feel like a financial investment. It should feel like a happy sigh -- like leisure.

Which brings us to the owners.

They already have the ballparks. Now, without the huge payrolls, force them, by law, to drop the ticket prices -- down to $5 a ticket or even less. Drop the ridiculous prices for food and drinks. They no longer will have the excuse that they have to meet huge expenses. It's gotten stupid. When I first came to Chicago, a ticket to sit in the outfield bleachers at Wrigley Field cost 50 cents. Now it's $24. Come on.

And now, to the real question: Would fans come?

Yes. They might be skeptical at first -- after all, who are these guys in the uniforms? -- but soon enough, one town's team would start to show spark and promise. There would be no stars, at the beginning -- there would just be no-names. But stars would emerge -- some guys on some teams would be surprisingly talented. Marketers would not tell the fans who the stars are -- the fans would decide on their own.

And when your town's team won, it really would be with players from your town -- guys who, today, sit in the stands or play in park leagues in their neighborhoods. A real connection, a real sense of pride, between the fans and the teams would develop -- the fans would feel that their cheers are appreciated, and the players would love the sound of those cheers. When Chicago -- or Pittsburgh, or Cleveland -- won, it really would be Chicago or Pittsburgh or Cleveland.

A fantasy? Maybe. But are you certain this could never work? And even if it didn't work, could the experiment be any worse than what baseball has turned itself into?

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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