Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Buy Me Some Sushi and Cracker Jacks?

Buy Me Some Sushi and Cracker Jacks?
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
March 30, 2004

The alarm went off at five in the Blessed a.m. My eyes actually opened at in time to see the first pitch thrown in the first game of the regular season following the first error committed – fumbling around in search of the remote in order to watch the Tampa Bay Devil Rays take on the New York Yankees.

Thus began the 2004 Major League Baseball season in the dead of night under the cover of darkness. In the Aloha State, baseball fans could have caught the season opener shortly after the conclusion of their late evening news instead of falling asleep to some grade-z movie on some innocuous cable station.

While Mickey Mantle’s in New York City served lox and bagels as part of its pre-sunrise game’s menu, right-handed pitcher Victor Zambrano of the Devil Rays served up the first pitch of the new season to Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter – at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. This is just plain wrong on so many levels.

I’m no fan of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, yet on this day, even in my sleepy, semi-conscious state, I could root no harder against the team America loves to hate – the Yankees. After all, I have been a New York Mets fan for over 30 years and to root for the Yankees is sacrilegious. So four batters into the game – before the first cock-a-doodle-do – when Jason Giambi slammed a two-run home run over the leftfield fence giving the hated Yankees a 2-0 lead, I thought, “what a waste of a sacrifice of much-needed sleep just to see the Yankees win again.”

Naturally, I began thinking of the many things that this specific game represented in what is wrong with what used to be America’s pastime – as well as some much needed hot tea and breakfast.

Opening Day of Major League Baseball used to be a glorious tradition – summoning spring from the south, returning it to the north to take the chill off the days of early April even on days when some games could have been played with snowballs instead of baseballs.

Opening Day of Major League Baseball meant a Monday afternoon game in Cincinnati featuring the Reds, nee Redlegs, the game’s oldest team. Such a game should still be the season opener where the Reds host either the Chicago Cubs or Pittsburgh Pirates, two of the league’s other oldest teams and National League Central Division rivals to the Reds. Not an American League contest featuring a team with an over $200 million payroll (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m a capitalist, after all) and a team that has never finished out of last place.

That leads to another problem in baseball – three divisions. There are three divisions in each league because there are too many teams in baseball. When a Major League pitcher is considered good with a 3.98 ERA (Earned Run Average for the uninitiated), Pedro Martinez notwithstanding, there’s something wrong. The talent pool in the sport has become too shallow with the addition of so many teams over the past decade.

Major League Baseball has 30 teams which lead to the three division system and the advent of an extra layer of playoffs with the birth of the wild card. This is a concept used in the National Football League which will only lead down the slippery slope to turning baseball into the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League where everyone except the Washington Wizards and New York Rangers can make the playoffs from their respective sports.

On the other hand, when Major League Baseball talked about contraction during the past two seasons, the small market Minnesota Twins proved why they should not have been on the potential chopping block by winning the Central Division. They have existed in the Twin Cities for more than 40 years and have a tradition that dates back to their days as the first Washington Senators.

Contraction would, however, help to solve some of the talent pool problems with the elimination of two teams. I would drop the Florida Marlins and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from the league. Two World Series championships notwithstanding, the Marlins are not a storied franchise, and after the first championship the ownership gutted the team for economic purposes turning them into a laughing stock for several years. The D-Rays have been perennial basement dwellers with no hope of rising above mediocrity, Lou Piniella or no Lou Piniella. Beside, baseball should not be played in Florida after April 1.

After eliminating the two Florida teams, return the Milwaukee Brewers to the American League where they started following their one-year stint as the Seattle Pilots. (Trivia: What one season did the Pilots exist? Name the only player to play for both the Pilots and the Seattle Mariners.) There are those who think the Brewers should remain in the National League because of the loss of the Braves to Atlanta in the 1960s, but for the purpose of having balanced leagues, this would work better.

Additionally, the Montreal Expos should be moved to Washington, DC. Our nation’s capital has suffered far too long with losing franchises in the Capitals hockey team, the Wizards and the long commute to Baltimore to see the Orioles. Make no mistake – Camden Yards is a great venue to see a ballgame, and the Inner Harbor is a fine place to eat and see an outdoor concert, but the nation’s capital is incomplete without a baseball team. The Expos barely draw enough fans to field a team of their own. They haven’t had an English-speaking television venue in years and the French version barely broadcasts enough games for anyone to care. Really now, who wants to watch baseball in French?

I’m such fan of the game I would watch winter baseball broadcast on the Spanish language channels when I was growing up.

While restoring some dignity to Washington with a baseball team, let’s also take care of a few other troubling details. Blow up those domed stadiums. Tear out the artificial turf still remaining in those venues that haven’t gotten the message yet – grass has gone in Busch Stadium where the St. Louis Cardinals play, in Kaufman Stadium where the Kansas City Royals call home and the new Philadelphia Phillies locale Citizens Bank Park is a turf-free zone.

While we’re at it, get those lights out of Wrigley Field and stop this Designated Hitter nonsense. Since 1973 when Ron Blomberg stepped to the plate for the New York Yankees as Major League Baseball’s first designated hitter, the game has suffered. A DH is not a complete player and should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Pitchers should learn how to bat, step up to the plate and take their swings. If pitchers knew they had to take their turn at bat, they might be less inclined to throw at opposing batters.

And while on the subject of the Yankees, getting back to that alleged opening morning affair with the Devil Rays, two more thoughts – why were the Yankees wearing their home pinstripes when they were treated as the visiting team and whose brilliant idea was it to turn the uniforms of both teams into billboards? Is nothing sacred? The Yankees don’t even put their players’ names on their uniforms. Was Major League Baseball trying to make the teams look the Bad News Bears and have the uniforms sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds? What next – the Softer Side of Sears sponsoring second base? It’s just wrong. And to top it off, after all their globetrotting the Yanks and D-Rays had to return to Florida for more exhibition games.

No, no. I’m a baseball traditionalist, for which I give my father credit. This is the same man who, a former Brooklyn Dodgers fan now a Mets fan, claims not to recognize teams west of the Mississippi River. Thank you dad. Now I need a nap. Oh, by the way, the only good thing about that first game between the Yanks and the D-Rays, the team from Tampa Bay took the Bronx Bombers to the woodshed 8-3.

Trivia answers: 1969 and Diego Segui.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and political consultant living in Alexandria, VA.