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Money issues could make baseball a forgotten pastime

November 06, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

The best game of Major League Baseball's 2009 postseason didn't come in the playoffs.

After 162 games had been played, the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers were deadlocked with records of 86 wins and 76 losses. This forced one extra game in Minnesota to determine the division winner.

The game started at 5 in the afternoon, meaning school kids would be able to stay up until the end, which didn't arrive until nearly five hours later as the Twins won 6-5 in 12 heart-stopping innings.

The game was filled with heroes and goats, wondrous feats to cheer and boneheaded human errors that brought shudders. Runs were whittled out of nothing, bases were loaded with no result. Two crafty managers played pitchers as if they were cards in a game of hearts, each trying to dodge the queen of spades. The game might have turned on the question of whether a pitch grazed the baggy uniform of Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge (it did) and whether he would correctly be awarded first base by the umpire (he wasn't).

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This was baseball, glorious baseball.

After the game, the Twins, they of the $65 million payroll, had to board a plane for New York to meet the Yankees, a team that had spent $425 million in the off-season to buy baseball's best available players, much in the way that Monty Burns of "The Simpsons" brought in major league players to assure a win for his company's softball team.

But for playing a game without sleep, but for missing their second-best player due to injury and but for Yankee-friendly umpiring, the Twins might have made a series of it.

But all of the stars need to align to beat a bought-and-paid-for lineup of all-stars.

The Twins are what the Baltimore Orioles were in the 1960s and '70s - smart and tough, with unparalleled talent evaluation and player development. These are the attributes that make baseball interesting, and these are the attributes that no longer matter. Were these Twins playing 40 years ago, they would be a borderline dynasty, just as the Orioles once were.

Instead, once the playoffs began, Minnesota only served as cannon fodder for checkbook baseball. Penny-wise and pound-foolish as ever, MLB cheered the Yankees wins because they are huge television draws.

But television ratings are fool's gold, whose glitter shadows the fact that baseball is dying across the nation in once-proud baseball cities such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Oakland (three teams whose combined salaries do not come close to matching the 2009 Yankees payroll).

This, of course, is a baseball problem, not a problem with the Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox or any other big spenders who operate quite within the rules.

And that problem should be very clear - when money becomes the controlling factor in sport, when money is the joystick the moves the game toward one interest or another, that sport is in serious trouble.

A half-century ago, the esteemed horseman Jock Whitney addressed the Thoroughbred Club of America, warning, "We cannot allow the spirit of racing to be bought ... The spirit of racing is in jeopardy whenever sportsmen lose control. Lose this spirit and there will be no racing - only races."

That translates well today. There is no baseball - only games.

Of course, in the middle of the last century, no one ever dreamed that anything on the sporting scene could supplant horse racing and boxing.

And while racing - now more of a casino game for off-track betting parlors -remains relevant during Triple Crown season, no sport has dropped off the map faster than boxing. It seems incredible in light of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, but who today can even name the current WBC heavyweight champion? (If you said Vitali Klitschko, you get a cookie.)

When boxing got greedy and went to pay-per-view, the nation shrugged and moved on. Inner-city kids who in another day might have become great boxers never got interested because they couldn't afford to watch the fights.

Baseball's Deer-in-the-Headlights-in-Chief, Bud Selig, like many baseball fans, probably doesn't have the capacity to envision a world without baseball - but it could happen if organizational acumen can be superseded by scratching out a check.

Football is the most popular sport in America because no one this season saw the New Orleans Saints coming. Football punishes reckless spending (see Redskins, Washington).

Unless baseball recognizes that 80 percent of its teams, due to financial inequities, have no chance going in, the fans in those forgotten cities will continue to drift away until America's Pastime becomes the next forgotten sport.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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