Even before the players packed up their gloves and blow-dryers and trooped morosely home, the 1981 baseball season had turned into a punishing scrape of ill feeling and bad nerves. Despite a spirited bolt from the gate by Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s, despite the phenomenal pitching of Dodger rookie Fernando Valenzuela and the dirt-flying hustle of veteran Pete Rose (who the day before the strike tied Stan Musial’s National League hit record at 3630), a cloud of gnats seemed to hover in the air, buzzing with irritation. On the field, managers went to operatic extremes to show up umpires, their tempers bursting like sewer pipes. Billy Martin, a low-flying baseball genius who always looks as if a host of demons were nipping at his ulcers, flipped out so angrily in one game that he hurled scoops of dirt at an ump’s backside—a gesture that belonged more to a school playground than a major league ballpark.
In the stands, the antics were often even hairier. Art Hill, in his devotional memoir of a year spent following the Detroit Tigers, I Don’t Care If I Never Come Back,* wrote that seeing Yankee fans up close for the first time was like waking up in a Brazilian jail. He then amended this crack to note that such punk nastiness had spread to every American ballpark, and beyond. When fans sprout fangs, it’s usually the players who suffer the brunt of their fury. Baltimore Oriole pitcher Dennis Martinez was struck on the head by a bottle chucked by a fan in Chicago’s Comiskey Park; Pirate star outfielder Dave Parker, who over the years has been pelted with batteries, bottles, and ice cubes, had the most ominous object of all hurled at him this season: a bullet.
At the last game I attended, a listless, drizzling affair between the Orioles and Yankees, a drunken bruiser a few rows back worked his voice hoarse shouting insults—insults which began the moment he plopped in his seat. “Bobby Brown,” he hooted rawly at the Yankee right-fielder, “crawl back into your muther.” With so many unsavory types roaming about unleashed, small wonder some ballplayers eye the stands with a wary squint. The next missile may have their name on it.
Perhaps the most telling evidence that the fun is leaking out of baseball can be found in the dispatches of the game’s most ardent chronicler, The New Yorker’s Roger Angell. In seasons past, Angell’s reports have been handsome tributes to the skills and quirks of the players dappled with feathery strokes of lyricism about the open-air allure of the game: the welcoming spread of outfield green, the sound of balls plopping softly into poised gloves. In 1976, however, writing in the aftermath of the owners’ lockup of the spring-training camps, Angell began to get a bit testy. He described all the fuss and bother in the papers about baseball’s financial worries as being as unappetizing as “a dog’s breakfast.” Even a dog might pass up the dreck now being poured into his dish each morning. Certainly Angell’s most recent report was his most disgruntled to date, clouded with funk and foreboding. Angell’s complaint, to summarize crudely, went like this: with the skyrocketing salaries being paid to ball-players, it’s now become impossible to regard them as merely highly paid athletes—they’re princeling entertainers, decked out in double-knits and cleats. So dominant has the dollar sign become in baseball that one wouldn’t be surprised to see the players take the field someday with price tags dangling from the bills of their caps.
Faced with spiraling salaries and profits (spirals which will shoot even higher with the boom in pay-cable TV), fans find themselves in the twists of a contradiction. On the one hand, they say that you can’t blame the players for getting all they can (“If Steinbrenner wants to fork out all that money…,” etc.); on the other hand, they say—they know—that there’s something absurdly askew when nurses and teachers are paid pittances, but a rightfielder who consistently misses the cut-off man is able to pull down $275,000 a year.
Within the cracks of this contradiction is where resentments breed. After all: the great appeal of baseball has always been that it offered sanctuary from the riffle of bank-wads and the clicking of lawyers’ briefcases, from the grabby ordinariness of the nine-to-five grind. It was a make-believe sanctuary—the history of baseball is littered with the careers of players ruined and discarded by avaricious owners—but it did seem an oasis of legend and play compared to the crass, pushing world just beyond the turnstiles. That’s all paradise lost now. Or, rather, paradise trashed.
In recent years, the trashing has been done by the ballpark impresarios, who have jazzed up the game, turned it into an orchestrated spectacular. Years ago, during a sparsely attended game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, a cat bounded out of the stands and scooted across the field, where the players gave pursuit. After some expert broken-field running, the cat bounded over the fence, and the game finally resumed. Innings later, the game having dwindled away to tedium, a scattering of bored fans began to chant, “Bring back the CAT, bring back the CAT….” It’s difficult to imagine such a spontaneous expression of amused discontent breaking out now because the fans are seldom allowed a quiet moment to think up their own mischief. Art Hill, venturing up to Montreal to catch a Phillies-Expos series, found himself in a brave new world of mad organists, furry mascots, flashing scoreboards, and P.T. Barnum devil-may-care hype.
Music blares, clowns cavort, and the game announcer sounds like a circus ringmaster, introducing each batter as if he had come directly from a command performance before the crowned heads of six countries. “Le quatrième frappeur, batting fourth,” he says in a voice fraught with tension, then with a rising inflection, drawing out every syllable, “To-nee Peeer-EZZZ!” I rather expected Tony to be shot out of a cannon, or at least to cart-wheel up to the plate….
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium isn’t the only arena which resembles a giant outdoor TV studio. New York’s Yankee Stadium has a huge message scoreboard which tells the fans when and how to cheer, and nearly every ballpark now has an organist who loves to doodle. If this is the future, bring back the cat.
No doubt things at this writing appear blacker than they are. Big-league baseball will resume (if not this year, next), great catches will still be made and fluke home runs hit, pigeons will once again flutter and nibble in the empty stretches of the upper deck. But there’s no denying that an aching hollow has been carved out of the summer. Probably no one who is not a baseball fan can understand how intimate a part baseball can be of one’s day. Even more than the pageantry, it’s the atmospheric buzz and chatter one misses: the lull and roar of a game broadcast late from the West Coast, the intricate rows of box scores in the papers, the sparring conversations and re-excavations of ancient disputes. Without baseball, the air seems thinner. Some die-hards have submerged themselves in nostalgia, some have found other distractions (chess, Space Invaders, teaching new words to the parrot); still others, thumped in the chest by the loss of baseball, drift zombie-eyed down shadowless streets, hoping somewhere fingers will snap and they’ll discover it was all a bad dream.
Even more poignant than this parade of ghosts is the sight of ballplayers trying to scratch out a living while waiting for the strike to end. Oriole lefthander Scott McGregor has even been spotted working as a weatherman on Baltimore TV, reduced to wearing a sport coat and standing in front of a map of Maryland. Unless you’ve seen McGregor on the mound, so elegant in his stride that he makes pitching seem a strainless art, you can’t imagine what a waste it is having him keeping tabs on the fluctuations in barometric pressure. Sadly, maddeningly, it doesn’t look as if Scott McGregor and his rivals will be returning to the mound any time soon. Inch by inch, the 1981 season seems to be falling on its sword, an inglorious suicide.
August 13, 1981