Baseball’s biggest problem - its bad attitude - is solved. The strike did it. The game has sobered up. What an awful price to pay to regain your sanity.
The mood of spring training is utterly different than at any time in the free-agent era. It’s as if the calendar reads 1975. The scene is like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Players go out of their way to sign autographs. If you’re still a fan after what the sport put you through, then the players think you’re royalty. The transformation is ridiculous. The majority of big-leaguers hardly seem like the same people you knew last summer. They treat everybody with the charm they used to reserve for a visiting movie star.
The game is profoundly ashamed of itself. And that’s good. In recent years, haughty has been the rule. You were lucky if the clubhouse man didn’t act like he’d just been elected to the Senate. Now humble is the flavor of the month.
Baseball is like a small town, full of gossip and guilt. Who knows, the shame-faced good behavior may even last beyond Opening Day.
“There might be a wonderful change that takes place… . There are an awful lot of good people in this game. Maybe they’ll come to the fore,” said the Yankees’ new star reliever, John Wetteland. “I know I’ll try to sign to the last person. My wife will say, ‘You missed these people over here.’ I remember how much Willie McCovey’s autograph meant to me when I was a kid.
“When I finally have to leave, I know someone’ll say, ‘See, they really are jerks.’ But that’s just one guy. I’ll be back the next day to sign more.”
For the past 20 years, the tone of baseball - slowly and bitterly - became chillier, greedier and more self-satisfied. Players resented demands of fans, utterly distrusted owners and merely tolerated the press. Insulated by their wealth, their agents, their endorsements and their attack-dog union, many players acted like spoiled rock stars.
For their part, owners loathed the union, only grudgingly appreciated their own players and generally treated fans like suckers. The motto of the game might have been: We Are Baseball, We Can Get Away With Anything.
Apparently, huge amounts of self-inflicted suffering are good for the soul. These days no fan is too boorish to be tolerated and no reporter too rude to get an interview. Baseball locker rooms now feel almost like NHL locker rooms, where everybody bends over backward to act civilized and help promote the sport. From owners to general managers to players, the mea culpas flow spontaneously. If you say, “Sure is a nice day,” they say, “I can’t believe what we did to the game. We have to help restore baseball’s good name.”
Sometimes you hear comments that almost make you faint with delight. Paul Molitor, a core union personality, actually says it’s time for the players to help share the burden of helping small-market teams stay solvent.
The owners have endured a brutally public humbling. They’ve been slapped around by the National Labor Relations Board and the courts. The owners cannot deny they were the driving, instigating force behind a work stoppage that - by best estimates - has cost the game $900 million and which, to date, hasn’t even resulted in a new labor contract.
It’s easy to say that if owners and players had just adopted their current positions last summer, all this misery could have been avoided. That, however, probably ignores nearly 25 years of horribly acrimonious labor relations. Owners gave birth to the only sort of union that could survive such an enemy: an ideologically fervent, never-give-backanything group with a will of steel.
Eight months ago, the owners said they could not survive without a salary cap. The union said it never would accept any artificial restraint on salaries. Both positions were bull-headed, grounded in personal animosity. Now the owners say, “What salary cap? We don’t have to have one.” The players respond, “We agree that you need a tax to act as a ‘drag’ on salaries.”
“We definitely want to negotiate from our last offer. We’re not pulling anything off the table,” said Yankees pitcher Jimmy Key.
“We’re willing to talk. Maybe both sides can finally accept, “You’re strong. We’re strong.’ Let’s not prove it again. There’s enough money in the game for everybody.”
“No more bickering,” said Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly.”When you’re home all those months and you don’t know when you’ll be back, it’s a little bit like retirement. You realize how much you love to play.”
Better late than never. But, remember, you guys, no backsliding allowed.