Coach's Corner

After a century of "development," baseball needs to reinvent itself. If it takes a long, bloody strike for the players and owners to understand that they have to work together, then so be it.

"Take me out to the ball game.

Take me out with the crowd.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

I don't care if I ever get back.

Let me root, root, root for the home team;

If they don't win it's a shame.

For it's one, two, three strikes you're out,

At the old ball game."

If there's a song that conjures up a fuller, more pleasant image of America, I don't know what it is. It's a great song really, so integrated into American culture it's as familiar as the national anthem. A perfect melody that transports us back to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. It's a quintessentially innocent, naive American tune that knows nothing of atomic bombs or terrorist attacks or jet travel.

Contrary to popular belief, the late Harry Caray did not write "Take Me Out To the Ballgame," but those tipsy renditions from his perch in Wrigley Field sure brought it back in vogue. Fact is, Harry's parents were still in grade school when the song was penned and set to music in 1908 by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tirzer, who, unlike Francis Scott Key, are lost in the obscure haze of ancient history. Norworth was on the elevated train in New York City when he saw an advertisement for a game in the Polo Grounds. The words just came to him, sitting on the train. I can't imagine his shock if he knew the legs this casual ditty would prove to have. Neither he nor Tirzer had ever been to a baseball game in their lives.

I'm sure they were not alone. Baseball was confined to a few cities on the East Coast and Midwest. Years before the advent of any kind of mass electronic media, in this case radio, few would've known -- or cared -- in 1908 that the Cubs won 99 games or that Honus Wagner led the National League in batting.

Let's say quite a bit has happened since then and leave it, mostly, at that. For five decades baseball's had a virtual monopoly on the mass recreational consciousness of the country. For any sports fan over the age of 50, baseball was assuredly their first exposure to sports. But alas, today the game is just another cable channel competing for the attention of the overstimulated American consumer: Baseball hasn't aged gracefully.

The game's modern stewardship has been stupid and smug: not a good combination. The players' union, pushed along briskly by management incompetence, has grown in power and wealth to a point where their golden guild is indistinguishable from management. They look and sound the same. Their acrimonious relationship has some parallels to the tribal conflicts wracking the world today. The two sides are sworn enemies, though they inhabit the exact same prosperous and bountiful territory. They don't trust each other, though both need each other to live. Left to their own devices, they could commit mutual suicide. It is, like all tribal conflicts, totally irrational. They can't help themselves.

There's no need to rehash the history of the current labor conflict. Not many subjects will garner less public sympathy than a financial squabble between millionaires. The Old Ball Game has come, truly, to a decisive crossroad. The game will either further recede from public relevance, moving ever farther from the American mainstream ... or it can reinvent itself.

The core issues have been clear for decades: a real salary cap and true revenue sharing. Infielders can't earn $25 million a year. More than 5% of the teams must have a chance to go to the World Series coming out of spring training, or why bother being a fan? The argument, "The owners wouldn't pay it if they couldn't afford to," is fallacious. Because deep-seated stupidity -- ownership only understanding the harm of long-term monster contracts when some other owner dispenses the loot -- doesn't invalidate their collective contention that the contracts are leading clubs to destruction. Yes, they need help from themselves.

The game must destroy itself in order to be reinvented as a better game. The owners must show a resolve never previously apparent. They must be willing to shut the game down for a year, two years ... whatever it takes. It needs to happen. The players' union, intoxicated with the self-destructive hubris of victory after victory, won't concede past "gains" without extreme pain.

Fans will come back. Nothing anyone can say will dissuade me of this conviction; especially if fans in Kansas City or Milwaukee believe they're playing on a semi-equal playing field. When the blood congeals, if fans see changes that make baseball a better game, they'll come back. And why not? This isn't personal. It's a long overdue bloodletting. I'm reminded of a line from The Godfather when one of Don Corleone's lieutenants says of the gang war ripping the Families, "Every once in a while we need to do this. It clears the air," or something like that.

We're a long way from 1908. The only way major sports can thrive today is for management and players to understand they're partners, splitting a lucrative goose. There's plenty for everybody. But, like any partnership, they need fair rules where everybody wins.

Not just a few golden franchises and a few chosen players.

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