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Volume 68, Issue 152, Monday, June 30, 2003


To survive, MLB must make changes

Cougar Pause

Ed De La Garza

Little about the game changed from the first chapter of Ken Burns' <I>Baseball<P> to the last. The game was still filled with idiotic owners who made boneheaded decisions, minority players fighting for recognition and fans who wanted nothing more than to see their team stop waiting till' next year.

For more than 100 years, Major League Baseball has seemed content to let the game take care of itself. It refuses to address its problems until they threaten to kill the big leagues. Of course, all of the following problems are easily correctable. 

Decrease in interest among minorities -- These days, about the only time you'll see young blacks or Hispanics wearing baseball gear is when they want to make a fashion statement or in hip-hop videos.

The recent success of players like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James has done more to steer inner-city youth away from stickball and towards blacktop basketball. You're more likely to find kids wanting to be the next Amare Stoudemire than you are to find Barry Bonds wannabes.

Some of the era's best are minorities (Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Delgado and Albert Pujols), yet kids aren't growing up idolizing these hardballers.

Some of the problem rests sorely on teams' reluctance to hire more black or Hispanic managers. Kids shouldn't aspire to play a game that only wants them to play and not join the front office.

History shows baseball has been among the slowest to react to anything involving race, but it clearly needs to reach out to urban kids. Not all inner-city children have a little league they can join. If it takes creating "street baseball leagues" so be it.

Drug testing -- Forget the juiced ball or bat. Baseball should worry about juiced players and adopt a strict drug test. The death of Steve Bechler last year proves MLB doesn't do an adequate job of testing for steroids or diet drugs, much less recreational narcotics.

New training techniques account for some of the modern era's padded stats, but they're not the sole reason. Steroid-abuse may not be an epidemic (and the threat of future screening may have scared some players off), but the player's association should realize it's not doing the players any favors by continuing to block potential testing.

The Yankees -- Teams don't have to adopt Billy Beane's method of running a squad, but there's something wrong when only a handful of them have a realistic shot of winning the World Series or even making it to the playoffs. There will always be teams like the California Angels, Minnesota Twins and Oakland A's, teams that buck the system by succeeding with lower payrolls, but they won't be perennial title contenders.

The Yankees are always a threat because George Steinbrenner will break the bank to lure free agents. Teams that spend close to $100 million will contend (of course, injuries could derail a team like the Mets).

Interleague play, et al -- Interleague play takes away some of the regular season's luster. Sure, it's fun to see the Yankees and the Mets play each other, but they shouldn't be facing each other until the World Series. That's what makes the All-Star Game special. Now MLB has to put in a gimmick that rewards the winner of an exhibition game with homefield advantage in the World Series. It used to have a better system that involved earning the right.

Gimmicks hurt baseball. Ideas like QuesTec, the computerized system of evaluating umpire's calls, may looked good on paper, but all it did was force umpires to overcompensate.

Baseball always does things like this. It washes over the major flaws and tries to fix what isn't broken. Part of the game's allure is that the game itself doesn't change. And it doesn't need to. The game will survive. MLB however, that remains to be seen.

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