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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the August 28, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Baseball Solution: Create a New League

I‘m not much of a sports fan, but I am a more or less

typical American male with access to a television set, radio, and

daily newspaper. I figure that in the course of my lifetime I have

probably spent 15,000 hours or so watching and listening to sports

events, another 5,000 hours reading about sports events, and 1,000

hours or so as a journalist interviewing athletes and coaches.

In all that time over all those years I — like my typical American

male counterparts — have pondered thousands of tough questions

(should they bring in a right-handed pitcher to face this right-handed

batter?) and perplexing issues (is football safer on natural or artificial

turf?). But in all that time over all those years, I have had only

two original thoughts, which come back to mind now thanks to the looming

baseball players’ strike.

The first bright idea is about football. It’s for colleges — maybe

Ivy League colleges, for example — that refer to their players

as "student-athlete-leaders" but in fact treat them on the

field like mindless puppets of a string-pulling coach. The idea is

that coaches work with the players up until the time of the game.

At that point they leave the field, become spectators, and allow the

players to call the plays and set the defenses for themselves. The

only professional on the field is the team physician, empowered to

remove injured players from the game.

The quarterback or the team captain or some skinny kid with thick

glasses might end up calling the plays on the field or from the sidelines.

An injured player might become valuable as a spotter in the press

box. The players figure it out for themselves and one or more of them

— not the coach — faces the terrible question of settling

for a tie or going for a win in a close game.

I present this idea to fans and coaches and they sneer: It would ruin

the chance of recruiting top players and it would diminish the on-the-field

execution of plays. On the other hand, I go to Ivy League games in

largely empty stadiums and I see some pretty sloppy football.

Now a thought about baseball. As everyone who has been reading about

the threatened players strike knows, the problem in baseball is that

the teams in the major markets have been able to purchase the highest

priced players. And even though high priced players may not always

be better players, these major market teams are winning most of the

pennants. Overall attendance is down, and several cities may lose

their major league teams. So what can you do?

Nothing. But maybe now is the time to consider a new baseball league,

one in which players are paid set amounts based on their years of

service and productivity (runs driven in, strikeouts, etc.). Excess

profits, if any, would go into a pool from which bonuses for league

leading averages and so on would be paid. Another pool would fund

retirement plans. There would be no free agents.

Players would be drafted based on geographical regions for each team

— the same statistical wizards who determine congressional districts

could carve up the country into, say, 12 regions for a 12-team league.

And teams would not be able to use cash to pull top players from other

teams — they would have to trade players to get players.

The old baseball hands will sneer: It will be sloppy baseball with

second rate players. How would you get a television contract? What

stadiums would have you? What about a minor league system?

These objections are all based on the thinking that a new baseball

league has to have all the grandeur and scale of the existing major

leagues. Not so. My idea is to start small. In the beginning the league

might be merely an extension of the American Legion baseball program

that currently fields teams of high school players.

In the beginning, players might well play for free. They will be hometown

boys, after all, and while I, a non-athlete, have spent all this time

talking about sports, there are many aging athletes playing in various

sandlot games.

In the beginning crowds might be friends and families of the players.

But that could change. And while the quality of play might not be

at major league level, it may still be entertaining. The other night

I watched three or four innings of a scoreless game in the televised

Little League playoffs. Then on Sunday night, August 25, I channel

surfed into the final game, Louisville against Japan, with the same

pitcher going for Louisville. I couldn’t resist, and watched Aaron

Alvey pitch a three-hit shutout and hit a home run to win the game,

1-0. A crowd of 40,000 turned out and the television ratings, I’ll

bet, were decent. And you had to feel sorry for the Japanese boys

— when was the last time you felt sorry for a major league baseball

player?

Even though I’m not much of a fan, my bet is that they stave off a

strike because even the players are beginning to understand that their

act is wearing thin. That’s my thought, not original. My hope, though,

is that they do strike. September is a busy month for me, and I would

love one less reason to turn on the television.


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