Sports Business

SPORTS: Why big-league baseball has become bush league

October 3, 2005

The Great American Pastime is past my time.

I've pretty much ceased to care about Major League Baseball.

Note that I said "major league." I remain very much a fan of the Indianapolis Indians and the experience to be had in the country's very best minor-league ballpark, Victory Field.

I do know, albeit casually, that going into the last week of the regular season, there was considerable sorting out to be done before playoff participants could be determined, that the Chicago White Sox were trying to avoid one of the more remarkable gags in history, and that, per usual, the Reds and Cubs-the only two teams I remotely follow-have long since been eliminated from contention.

I'm sure my friend Jeff Smulyan, the Emmis Communications Corp. owner who once owned the Seattle Mariners and now is in hot pursuit of purchasing the Washington Nationals, can wax poetic about the virtues of big-league ball, and the sport, obviously, still has substantial following.

And it will be a good thing for baseball-and for Indianapolis, by extension-if Smulyan is successful in his bid because he's a sharp, savvy guy who might be able to talk some sense into his fellow owners if he joins their club again. At the same time, don't delude yourselves into thinking Smulyan's ownership would somehow lead to the day when a Major League franchise would find its way to Indy. Never say never, but (A) the surrounding franchises in Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis would never allow it; (B) with the Indians and Victory Field, we have both the right baseball product and the right venue for this market; and (C) our entertainment market is stretched as far as it can stretch.

That said, 20 or 30 years from now, who knows? Lots more is sure to happen in the city's evolution.

Yet I digress.

As we get into October, I admit I will be drawn to watching an inning or two-perhaps more-of the playoffs, in particular the World Series.

But baseball's failure to rein in itself, to provide some kind of cost control (read, salary cap) to try to maintain the semblance of competitive equity among disparate markets, (another reason why Indianapolis should not pursue Major League baseball) and, worst of all, its abject failure to protect the integrity of the game has caused me to cease investments of time and interest.

Except for the Yankees. I'll continue to root for them to lose, even though they may never again live down to their el foldo against the Red Sox last fall.

Beyond competitive equity (or the lack thereof, virtually guaranteeing that smaller markets with smaller payrolls enter every season with no real chance of winning the Series), the most egregious of baseball's sins is its inability to protect the game. Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners have allowed the inmates to take over the asylum, and there is no clearer evidence to be offered than the ongoing debate over penalties for steroid use.

Just last March, when Congress called baseball on the carpet, Players Association Executive Director Don Fehr testified thusly:

"I cannot put it more plainly. The use of any illegal substance is wrong."

But how wrong? Not so wrong that the players' association will agree that cheaters-which is what the juicers are-should be eliminated from the game.

The issue again came to mind last month as Congress opened another hearing. Just before it did, the players' association announced that Selig's proposed penalties for steroid abuse-50 games for a first-time offense, 100 games for a second, and a lifetime ban for a third (dubbed "three strikes and you're out")-are unacceptable to the players.

Instead, they're willing to accept 20 games for a first offense, 75 games for a second, and a not-so-automatic lifetime ban (it would be "subject to review") for the threetime loser.

Twenty games for a first-time offense? That's not a deterrent. That's a joke. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, a baseball Hall of Famer, called it "embarrassing."

The players just don't get it, and Selig and the owners don't have the gumption to draw a line in the sand.

I guess as long as Pete Rose is kept out of the Hall of Fame, that's enough to protect the sanctity of the game.

Now, a final note ... add John Mutz to the visionaries I cited last week for their role in the sports strategy that has transformed the city.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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