By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

My parents spent nearly $90,000 on my college education, highlighted by my degree in political science. That's right, political science. Back in the day, I took four separate classes on the Middle East alone, becoming something of an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ten years later, I couldn't even point out Israel on a map. That's college for you. In one ear and out the other.

What does this have to do with the impending baseball strike? My favorite theory from my poly-sci days was the Zero Sum Game theory: If somebody wins, somebody else has to lose.

For instance, during the Cold War, when the United States and Russia were competing for world dominance, they couldn't both prevail. If Afghanistan fell to the Soviets, Russia became stronger, making the USA weaker in the process. If America toppled Castro and Cuba, it became stronger and Russia became weaker. That's a zero sum game. Somebody always won, somebody always lost ... unless there was a nuclear holocaust, in which case, everyone would have lost, and the zero sum game would have been rendered moot (a worst-case scenario).

Pretty simple stuff. I always thought that theory could be extended to all walks of life. Your buddy brings home the hottest chick in the bar, which means she didn't leave with anyone else. He won, everyone else lost. Zero sum game. Or all those CDs that you borrowed over the years and never gave back ... isn't that number roughly equivalent to the number of CDs that you lent out and never got back? Somehow, it all evens out in the end, doesn't it? Zero sum game. Greatest theory I ever learned in college.

And it applies to just about every form of life ... except sports. Maybe the actual games follow the zero sum game prototype -- somebody always wins, somebody always loses (except in MLB All-Star Games) -- but when a professional sport is being operated correctly, nobody loses. Owners earn profits, players are compensated handsomely for doing what they love, and fans enjoy supporting their teams. Everybody wins.

Well, almost everybody. In Major League Baseball, players lose, owners lose and fans lose. The zero sum game can't apply here; there isn't a winner to be seen, especially with yet another work stoppage looming in less than two weeks. That means fans have to take matters into their own hands. And there's only one thing to do.

Yup. Strike.

Turn our backs and walk away.

***** ***** *****

Over the past few months, I received numerous e-mails from readers urging me to "join them" by striking against baseball. An impassioned few even started their own websites devoted to the cause ( being the most prominent), which I found a little farfetched. A baseball strike by fans? That would never work. Something like 20 million fans attend baseball games every season ... how could you get them all on the same page? I replied to their e-mails, wished them well, promised to check out their websites and never actually did.

Pedro Martinez

But something snapped for me Monday morning. Sipping iced coffee and reading the USA Today, I stumbled across page 6C of the sports section -- an entire page devoted to the latest goings-on with the impending strike. Yuck.

Please understand, I've been skipping these strike articles for the past six months. That's just the way I operate. If something bad might happen, I don't want to know about it ... I'd rather just pretend it isn't happening at all. Besides, my beloved Red Sox were playing pretty well (at least through June, until the league quietly passed a rule that the Sox offense couldn't rally for a comeback if they were losing after six innings). I didn't want to think about a strike. Not yet. Now, I couldn't avoid it any longer.

What the hell was the problem here? Was it really that bad?

So I devoured page 6C. I knew they agreed on steroid testing. The amateur draft could never be a deal-breaker. The luxury tax works with the NBA, so there's no reason it couldn't work with baseball in some form. As for revenue sharing, the owners want to share 50 percent of local revenues, minus stadium expenses, minus the cost of syringes, divided by Tony La Russa's IQ, which needs to fall between the average of all 30 teams, or else money gets allocated to a central fund, which then goes toward my medical fees, because my brain just started hemorrhaging ... I mean, who even understands this stuff? I certainly don't. But it didn't seem improbable that they could hash everything out.

While mulling this over, I stumbled across the following paragraph from Hal Bodley's article headlined "Clock ticks as negotiations resume."

"The last strike began on Aug. 12, 1994, dragged on for 232 days and wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years. The walkout ended only after a federal judge issued an injunction restoring the rules of the expired labor contract."

Bud Selig
Do you really think this man has a plan to fix baseball?

Good Lord. In other words, the strike lasted nearly eight months, ruined Tony Gwynn's bid for .400, ruined Matt Williams' quest for 62 homers, ruined Montreal's "catch lightning in a bottle" season, murdered the World Series, antagonized fans, nearly destroyed the sport as we know it ... and they ended up saying, "All right, let's go back to the old labor contract, start a new season and play it by ear."

Wasn't that the dumbest turn of events in the history of sports, or am I crazy? Has there ever been anything quite like it? What was accomplished? Was it like one of those marriages were the couple gets so tired of one another, they end up separating for a few months ... eventually reconciling because they would rather be miserable with one another than miserable alone?

More importantly, why wasn't I angrier about this? Why did I just accept it? Why did I keep watching the games when they came back? Why didn't I hold a bigger grudge? Why did I pull a Michael Corleone and do the "Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in" routine?

Eight years have passed, and I'm still trying to figure it out. I don't believe that owners and players care about fans, that Team Selig has any semblance of a master plan, that there's a way to salvage the competitive spirit of the sport that doesn't involve the phrases "luxury tax" or "salary cap." I keep reading how owners and players are at the brink ... lemme tell you something, I'm at the brink. If a restaurant serves crappy food, you stop eating there. If a rock band puts out lousy records, you stop buying them. Yet baseball has been serving up a lousy product for the past few years, and it's getting worse, and nobody seems willing to do anything about it.

***** **** *****

And that's when it dawned on me, at 10:12 a.m., sitting at my local Dunkin' Donuts:

I can stop going.

Think about it. I only attend eight to 10 Red Sox games per season, partly because it's impossible to find tickets, partly because of the price ($55 and up for good seats), partly because the allure of Fenway Park has faded for me over the years (when a baseball park doubles as an inusfferable, uncomfortable dump, that tends to happen). So what's that? Eight nights a year where I have to find something else to do? I could handle that, couldn't I?

Strike cartoon
Baseball fans have plenty in common with jilted lovers. Page 2 cartoonist Kurt Snibbe offers a new anthem for fans if there's a work stoppage.

And couldn't you? Couldn't we all? Isn't there enough happening in our lives where we could collectively say, "Screw it, we're not buying tickets anymore"? That doesn't mean we would give up baseball in the "cold turkey" sense, like a three-pack-a-day smoker suddenly slapping on the patch. We could still follow games through TV and radio, peruse box scores, read newspaper accounts, operate fantasy teams, enjoy SportsCenter highlights and everything else. It would almost feel like living in Hartford, but better, because you wouldn't actually be living in Hartford.

One thing stops us from making that fateful leap off the bandwagon, a collective forcefield of memories and affection: Sammy and Mac, Griffey and Griffey Jr., Reggie and Nolan, Koufax and Gibson, Willie and Mickey, Joe D and the Splinter, Babe and Lou, Ty and Cy, Angell and Updike, Topps and Fleer, fathers and sons, Fenway and Wrigley, Strat-o-matic and Microleague, Boston and New York, the Dodgers and Giants, Roy Hobbs and Crash Davis, Terrence Mann and the cornfield ... forget about the anti-trust exemption, baseball has an "anti-fan" exemption. There's too much history here. You can't turn your back on baseball. It's sacrilege.

But you can stop buying tickets, can't you? At least for a little while, at least until you're absolutely positive that the ship has been righted?

My buddy Kurt put it best. We had already made plans to attend tonight's Red Sox game, our last game at Fenway before the inevitable strike (we wanted to catch one more game before we turned our backs, like a farewell appearance). So we were discussing the strike, getting more agitated as we talked, and finally Kurt blurted out, "I feel like a guy whose girlfriend keeps cheating on him ... I mean, how much can you take before you lose all your self-respect?"

Quick Note from Sports Guy
Thanks to everyone who sent in thoughts about last week's "Madden 2003" piece, which generated a staggering amount of responses (nearly 1,200 e-mails in three days). Needless to say, it was impossible to write back to everybody, but I did read everything, so hopefully we'll be able to run a feedback column at some point soon.

One clarification: I didn't forget about "Super Tecmo Bowl" -- I just lumped it into the section about the original "Tecmo" game to save space. In retrospect, I should have devoted at least a paragraph to it, since it was a far superior version with more plays (and as many of you pointed out, it was actually the first football game to keep stats, beating the "Madden" series by about nine months).

And yes, I know I forgot to put Christian Okoye and Barry Sanders in the "Top 25 Pantheon." It has haunted me every night since. Anyway, thanks again.

Exactly. Of course, you probably don't even need a pep talk from me. From the e-mails I've been getting, everyone seems riled up, pissed off, even. One of my other buddies was getting a haircut Friday afternoon, right when CNN reported that a strike deadline had been set, and everyone in the barber shop started grumbling in anger. "Screw them," one of the barbers said. "The NFL starts in three weeks." Everyone felt that way. There are more of us out there then we might think.

Anyway, I'm giving the idiot owners and the idiot players 10 days to hammer this out. If this debacle ends with talks breaking off, followed by another strike, I'm D-U-N done. No more money from me.

More importantly, I pledge to use this space to rally as many people as I can. If enough of us boycott these games, maybe ticket prices and salaries will come crashing down. Maybe wide-scale reform will take place. Maybe every move made by owners and players would revolve around one theme -- What can we do to win fans back and keep them here? -- and they would have no choice but to create a system that actually works. Maybe only the fans would emerge on top in the end.

In other words, it would be the ultimate zero sum game: We win, they lose. And if you spread the word and stick to your guns, it just might happen. Keep the faith.

Bill Simmons writes columns for Page 2 and ESPN the Magazine.