|If they strike, I'm going fishin'|
By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist
My friend Richard Berlin and I had spent four days up on the Tabusintac River in New Brunswick, happily fishing for giant brook trout, and now we were on our way back to the United States. About 50 miles from Presque Isle, Maine, where we would board our plane back to Boston, we finally picked up the Red Sox-Yankees game on the radio, the last of a three-game series.
Berlin, a man of Boston, was thrilled. I -- who was born in the Bronx, grew up in New England, live in New York but have a summer house in Massachusetts, and loved the older Red Sox players I met when I did a book on the 1949 Yankees-Red Sox pennant race -- had mixed feelings.
I feel a certain orbital pull to the Yankees, by dint of living in the same city and the inevitable emotional pull toward players you watch almost every day on television, but I feel a different kind of emotional pull to the Red Sox, particularly because they have over the years seemed overwhelmed by their fates (or by their DNA). My good friend Marty Nolan, the distinguished and now retired Boston Globe editor, once summed up the frustrations of being a lifelong Red Sox fan by saying, "They killed my father, and now they're coming after me."
In theory, a Red Sox victory fits in with my greater code of fairness, and yet because I'm a New Yorker, there is a sense of having more complicated feelings. I can be as nostalgic about Williams, Doerr, Pesky and DiMaggio, as I can about Keller, Henrich and DiMaggio.
I told Berlin simply that I did not think this one was over yet and that the Yankees' strength was their bullpen. Radio remains a marvelous instrument by which to pick up and enjoy baseball, and in the ninth inning with Ugie Urbina pitching, and Jason Giambi batting, our rented SUV was as good as being in the ballpark. Giambi is a very good hitter, one of those rare players who, inflationary salary or not, is worth almost what he is paid. He has an uncommon eye, he picks the ball up very quickly, and he knows his job, which means that he knows it is as important in certain situations to get on base as it is to hit a home run.
There had been little more any serious fan could ask for in terms of confrontation -- if the Yankees won, they would go up four games, if Boston won, it would be behind only two and would continue to show that it could outplay the Yankees in head-to-head competition. Both now had ownerships that seemed to reflect the passion of their fans. The Yankees had improved themselves over the offseason, but the Red Sox had improved themselves perhaps even more, and they might have, unlikely though it might have seemed before the season started, better starting pitching than the Yankees, and they seemed to have the most un-Red Sox like of attributes, considerable team speed, and better fielding than in the past. They did something that few Red Sox teams have ever done -- they fielded better than their Yankee rivals.
I mention all this because we are being told that a strike is imminent -- that the date has even been picked out, Sept. 16; the people who make these decisions do not, after all, for reasons of good manners want it to be before Sept. 11 because they do not want to look petulant and spoiled on the anniversary of the terrorist bombings. That might not be good public relations, and good public relations are very important these days.
The truth is, that in all that time as far as I can tell, there has not been the slightest serious movement on either side for any kind of settlement. No give at all. A commissioner, whose own baseball team seems to be the prototype for a kind of perennial loser, runs the show. (As I write, Milwaukee is a mere 22 games below .500, and a mere 22½ games behind St. Louis. Only Tampa Bay, that most storied franchise of franchises, has lost more games in all of major league baseball. Is there anyone connected to baseball who does not think that if Peter Gammons was given this same franchise with the same budget, and had two years to move players around, he would not have somehow come up with a much better, younger, more interesting team?)
What we have is a world of greed and arrogance and some measure of stupidity: arrogant owners, arrogant players, and arrogant agents. No one willing to work on (or even try to come up with) any kind of formula that would give even the semblance of negotiation. The idea -- I suppose this is the genius of it -- is to wait until the very moment when fan interest should be at its peak, when the pennant races are in full bloom, and then turn it all off. The fans will be angry, it is presumed, and will demand some kind of action. I'm not so sure.
I have no strong feelings at all on this one because I gave up thinking long ago that the conflicting sides care very much. I see no point in caring more about baseball than the chief operators and chief beneficiaries do; that is, the people who are ostensibly in charge of its health and who make their living off the game.
So if they want to walk, it's all right with me. If they can't find an equitable formula for revenue sharing, to give the game some measure of economic balance, they don't deserve to be in charge of, or profit from the game. The players have turned out to be capitalists, very shrewd ones at that, and the owners are caught between being capitalists and hobbyists, and have lost control of their own domain over a period of years.
When the world was changing on them in terms of free agency and the owners could have worked out a good deal with the players, they were too full of themselves, and too arrogant to see what the new structure of baseball was going to mean. Later, when they still had a chance to work out some kind of deal, they were too divided among themselves to be strong. Which is where we pick them up today -- not that smart, and not that visionary, and not that unified.
The owners went from an age of authoritarian power -- the players were in a condition of complete economic servitude -- to a new age that demanded nuance, wisdom, economic self control, and respect for their employees. Not surprisingly, they have been floundering ever since. They have lacked at the very core, vision, a sense of how to measure their pie honestly among themselves, and then how to seek a means of sharing that pie with the players.
It's not the Yankees who are ruining baseball -- it's other owners who bought in and thought they could run the game to their own specifications, and found, once in the game, that they were wrong, that the old authoritarian era had changed, and that it cost more than they thought to be a member of this particular rich man's club. They don't like the price of poker now that they're in the game. (Remember Wayne Huizenga, one of my all-time favorite owners -- he came in, bought a pennant and a World Series championship and then, not liking the balance sheet, completely dismantled his team. Now there's a franchise rich in history for you -- a modern dynasty so to speak -- one more likely to be studied at Harvard Business School than by baseball historians).
The truth about George Steinbrenner is that for all his flaws and his bombast, he has become a rather smart owner in recent years, and he has maximized the rules for his own best interest and that of a team in the media capital of the world. He finally has learned about the importance of pitching, he has not traded his young talent away, and he has left a gifted manager alone.
Unlike his counterpart in Texas, Steinbrenner did not spend $252 million on one position player, however talented, without upgrading his pitching staff. And as for the position player in question, he gives us a certain insight into the mentality of the players -- maybe he's a great person and a great young man, and certainly everyone seems to like him, but the truth is, facing a very short career like any athlete, he has severely limited his chance to test his real greatness because he has truncated the chance to play at moments of maximum competition when greatness truly matters, in postseason. He left a wonderful team with great fans in a city where he was immensely popular, to play for a team that is at the moment only 19½ games out of first place with almost no prospects for an improved pitching staff and a disillusioned owner who is talking about pulling back from high salaries.
As for Steinbrenner, he's hardly the richest owner in baseball. And he's right when he points out that when they've taxed the more successful owners on behalf of the smaller markets in the past, the smaller-market owners have not been very quick to put that money back into players' salaries.
In the past when there was a strike, my sympathies were fairly clear. I tended to side with the players. So in a way this is more of a warning to Donald Fehr and the players, because I'm never on the side of the owners. But Fehr should know that in this economy and in this country right now, almost no one is on his side. They might not be against him, but they sure as hell are not for him.
This time, like most fans I know, I have a plague-on-both-your-houses attitude. If they strike, I'll do other things. The morning paper will be a little less interesting -- like many males of my generation, I read it back to front, starting with the sports page. But the world will go on without baseball. I'll definitely miss it in October. I like the game, and maybe, slowly warily (very warily) I'll come back if they ever see fit to play again. But I've invested a lot in caring about both New York and Boston this year, and I don't like investing my emotions and not getting something back, and being cheated when it finally matters, at playoff time. If they can walk it or shut it down, I can walk it and shut it down, too.
Sure, I've enjoyed watching this season. I've enjoyed watching Pedro Martinez come back from his arm troubles, and Nomar come back from his terrible season, and I've enjoyed watching Alfonso Soriano, with the great elasticity in his muscles, explode into greatness. I've been impressed by the graceful way Giambi has handled a double whammy, a huge contract and move to the center of the New York spotlight and never flinched.
One of my great pleasures has been a surprising one -- the simple delight I take in listening to Jim Kaat, as he broadcasts the Yankee games. Quietly with no blather and bombast, he gives what is one of the most enjoyable and thoughtful ongoing seminars on pitching I've ever heard. Jim Kaat, you're right up there for my MVP.
There are, remarkably enough, and hard for all of the people who dominate baseball to believe, other things for us to do in the summer -- movies to go to and books to read. Me, I like to fish.
My friend Richard Berlin and I had just spent four marvelous days on the Tabusintac in New Brunswick, fishing for large ocean-going brook trout. The lodge where we stayed was beautiful, the fish were, if not plentiful, certainly abundant and very tenacious, and on the last day there, I had caught a 6-pounder and a 5-pounder, and Berlin, a vastly superior fishermen, had done even better. Those are, by the way, given the species, very nice-sized fish. The truth about fishing is that there are good days and bad days, but even the bad days are almost always good days, and while I have had days when I did not catch a single fish, I have never known the fish to go out on strike.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes occasionally for Page 2.