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February 24, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Surviving a Rough Week

by Jim Baker

This is coming to you during the week that must, in all candor, be considered the low ebb of the sporting life and, frankly, it's got me in a state where I can't focus on any one topic. If I jump from item to item today it's because I am out of kilter. Why? Because these days that we are experiencing right now are those in which figure skating is the most talked about sport on the planet and it's freaking me out.

The good news is this: the madness only lasts about a week and it only happens once every four years. Let's consider how this stacks up against baseball. In this decade, the Winter Olympics will happen three times: 2002, 2006 and 2010. So, for the years 2001-2010, this is how it will play out:

Weeks where ice skating matters: 3
Weeks where major league baseball is being played: 300
I like that ratio: 100-to-1. The good news is that, next decade, it gets even better:

2011-2020
Weeks where ice skating matters: 2
Weeks where major league baseball is being played: 300

This is without even getting into the highly dubious claim that figure skating is a sport. Personally, I don't see the difference between it and ballet dancing and you don't see a panel of judges at every performance of Swan Lake, do you? Anyway, take a deep breath and hang on--this ice skating thing will be over before you know it.

When I, or any fan of what are commonly referred to as "real" sports, go off on something like ice skating, the pushback is considerable and usually follows along these lines: "Ice skaters are athletic and have to be in great shape."

Agreed! In her prime, Tonya Harding was built so powerfully she could probably have crushed rocks between her knees. That is not the point, though. The point is that nobody was trying to prevent her from performing. The key to real sports is that they have a conflict factor: there has to be somebody occupying the same space or a space adjacent to the competitor who has a vested interest in keeping the performer from performing. (And no, having someone whack a competitor in the knee doesn't count. If this sort of action were codified, though, I would shut up about figure skating forever and become its biggest supporter.)

And no, wise guy, this definition of real sport does not open the door for checkers and chess. There has to be a sweat and effort factor. This is not to dismiss motor sports as being real. The danger and concentration elements of those endeavors trump the fact the participants are in a seated position.

Do I feel threatened by figure skating? Does its purity of motion, its beauty, its pursuit of perfection intimidate me and remind me that I am, by comparison, clumsy and oafish and incapable of carrying off wearing a jumpsuit? Do you want me to submit and confess that my dismissal of it as a real sport stems from my own feelings of inadequacy and has nothing to do with the fact that anything that requires background music cannot possibly be considered real?

Not happening.

Now, on to those random topics:

  • Who are these writers agitating for Barry Bonds to retire and what the hell is wrong with them? Why would they want someone who has figured out the game the way he has to depart from it? Because he's surly? Who gives a rat's ass? When a fan is sitting in the upper deck, what do they care have whether or not a player answers questions politely? They want the big show; the grand gesture. They want the long fly. Think about this: would you rather see a ballplayer hit a home run or would you rather read a pithy remark he made?

    Here's an idea for the writers: leave Bonds alone. Don't go near him. Don't ask him questions about his future (it's obvious, isn't it: if he can play next year he will--end of story), don't ask him about anything. If getting him to answer questions is a pain, stop asking him. I don't need to see that wish-I-were-anywhere-else-but-here look he gets when surrounded by reporters ever again, do you? I will miss watching him hit, though. So, just don't talk to him in 2006. Let's just watch him play instead.

  • What would you do if you were Alfonso Soriano? The Washington Nationals traded for him and would like him to change positions; he is resisting. Putting aside his relative worth at either position, wouldn't it have been prudent to find out his feelings on taking up another defensive role before bundling up Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga and sending them to Texas? Incumbent second baseman Jose Vidro isn't budging, and for the time being at least, neither is Soriano. There has been much agitation to get him out of the middle infield since he became a regular with the Yankees back in 2001. Defensively, it's the right thing to do, but you have to have the player's buy-in to make it work. Since he's already locked into an eight-figure payday in 2006--even after losing in arbitration--the Nationals don't have a lot of leverage with him. This was a bad deal to begin with (Christina Kahrl described it as a "rout" for the Rangers at the time it was made) but it is beginning to look like something beyond bad now that its principal figure isn't playing ball with his new employer.

  • I am holding in my hand the April 1993 issue of Esquire magazine that I found in a dusty second-hand store in Buda (pronounced Byou-dah), Texas. It contains an article by Robert Lipsyte called "The Dying Game." It's about one of my favorite topics: the imminent death of our national pastime. Ever since I can remember, the death of baseball has been a lucrative topic for writers. Esquire pays well, so I'm sure Mr. Lipsyte could care less that he joined the ranks of every other baseball doomsday scenarist in being completely wrong about the demise of the sport. He made his deadline, got his check and moved on.

    For a couple of years there he probably thought he was on to something, though, what with the strike that followed soon thereafter. Baseball stepped over that body and kept on going just as it has with every other obstacle that fate, history and those responsible for the game have put in its path.

    There is an interesting chart that goes with the piece, though. It is including to show that the disparities in team salaries will add to the game's failing. It lists the average salary per player per team. Guess which team has the second-highest average? The now famously-underfunded Oakland A's at $1.44 million. Tops were the Blue Jays at $1.72 million. The defending division champion Pirates, now habitués of baseball's skid row, were eighth at $1.2 million. The two lowest-paid clubs were Cleveland and Houston at $327,000 and $557,000 respectively. Since then, they have been two of the better-run franchises in the game.

    The best predictive work of this nature that I've ever encountered was a book called Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? by Andre Amalrik. It was written in 1970 and used 1984 because, back then, it was synonymous with totalitarianism thanks to the George Orwell novel of that name. Even with the title chosen to move product, the guy pretty much nailed it. For that one success, though, there are hosts of books and articles predicting stock market crashes and World Wars that never came to pass--much like the baseball doomsday gambit. Can we now, please, once and for all, see an end to these sorts of stories about our national game? They're sensational and silly and will always, always be wrong.

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