SPECIAL REPORT

MEAN SEASON

A sports-obsessed culture confronts the abrupt end of the baseball season—and more trouble yet to come

BOB LEVIN September 26 1994
SPECIAL REPORT

MEAN SEASON

A sports-obsessed culture confronts the abrupt end of the baseball season—and more trouble yet to come

BOB LEVIN September 26 1994

MEAN SEASON

SPECIAL REPORT

A sports-obsessed culture confronts the abrupt end of the baseball season—and more trouble yet to come

BOB LEVIN

The game never happened. The cheering was canned.

The action was phoney, a fiction created by a computer and play-acted by imaginative announcers. But fans—baseball-deprived junkies—tuned in anyway as the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays took on the legendary 1961 New York Yankees. Anything for a fix. “One of the defining sounds of summer in North America is the sound of radio baseball,” says Bob Mackowycz, operations manager for Toronto’s all-sports station, “The Fan,” which produced the fantasy games to fill the programming void left by the baseball strike. “Simply rerunning classic games gives you the sound, but it doesn’t give you the drama of not knowing the outcome. That’s part of the reason sport has become so important in our culture—the excitement of not knowing how it will tum out.” In fact, so caught up in the action was one listener that, after the Yanks’ 4-1 victory, he called a phone-in show to berate Jays’ manager Cito Gaston for starting aging pitcher Jack Morris in a crucial game like that. He was not joldng. “I was sitting there,” says Mackowycz, “with a big smile on my face thinking, ‘Ah, it worked.’ ”

For the sports-obsessed—and the affliction is as ubiquitous as ball caps—this is supposed to be the splendid season, a time when North America’s four major sports are in full swing or about to be, when the thrill and grace of games ease the passage into winter.

It has, instead, been The Mean Season. Last week, with no end in sight to the baseball standoff, the owners unceremoniously cancelled the rest of the campaign. In the process, they plowed a field of broken dreams for the front-running Montreal Expos, among other clubs, and marked 1994 as the first year without a World Series in 90 years (page 32).

And the spoiling of sport may not end there. Hockey camps have opened but, with players and owners slugging it out over money, commissioner Gary Bettman could deliver a lockout punch on or after Oct. 1.

Similar trouble may be brewing in pro basketball. In fact, while football—American and Canadian—is in full stride, sports news has been dominated not by hot players but by cold cash. The average fan, of course, is not that naïve—sure, sports is a business and sometimes a nasty one—but he clings to the purity of the play and the illusions it allows. “Our culture has lost the grand sense of meaning,” says Philip White, a sports sociologist at McMaster University in Hamilton. “Religion is receding. Sports provides people with a sense of community—it’s linked to a sense of nostalgia, to stability, to goodness, to fairness.”

How big an obsession has sports become, how pervasive a part of the larger culture? Does the name O. J. Simpson sound familiar? How about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan?

Sports—thanks largely to the great god television—has become a religion, and it has learned how to pass the plate. The Fox network recently paid $2.1 billion for the privilege of televising National Football League games for four years, and last week Fox announced that it would lay out another $210 million to do National Hockey League games over five years. Some entertainment companies have begun skipping the middlemen and purchasing teams outright— most famously the Walt Disney Co.’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a hockey club named after a movie. Fans, meanwhile, buy the tickets or bet on games, while kids trade the cards and wear the shirts and shorts “ festooned with designer sharks and bulls and marlins. They also idolize the stars, although that seems almost incidental: Toronto-area kids, after all, are now decked out in the colorful clothes of basketball’s Raptors, a team that doesn’t yet exist (featuring a creature that has gone extinct).

KEEPING THE STATS

• In 1993, the average revenue for a major-league baseball team was nearly $86 million. For the Toronto Blue Jays, $120 million; for the Montreal Expos, $63 million. The average operating profit per team: $8 million.

• The average major-league baseball player salary: $1.6 million. The greatest loss because of the strike: Bobby Bonilla of the New York Mets, $42,143 per day.

• Michael Jordan—even playing baseball—-earns an estimated $40 million a year from endorsements. Basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal: about $20 million. Hockey’s Wayne Gretzky: more than $5 million.

• A day at a National Football League game for a family of four— including the cost of medium-priced tickets, parking, food, programs

and souvenirs—is X

the most expensive *

outing in pro sports, averaging $250.

• Canadians wagered $372 million on pro sports in legal lotteries last year. The money that goes to bookies is another matter—experts estimate that legal lotteries represent only one-tenth of North Americans’ gambling on pro games.

• Card collecting for the four major sports represents a $2.5-billion business in North America.

Baseball is tops at $1.3 billion. In Canada, hockey cards account for $120 million in sales.

• North Americans buy about $11.5 billion a year in merchandise bearing the names of their favorite teams in the four major sports.

Gone, too, are the gauzy good old days about which fathers endlessly tell sons and, increasingly, daughters. After Simon and Garfunkel sang “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you” in the late Sixties, the great Yankee slugger returned to the public eye, silver-haired and serious, as a pitchman for an electric coffeemaker. The past was hardly pure—Babe Ruth did endorsements, too, but at least he hit a ton of homers first. In today’s marketing-mad age, Shaquille O’Neal was barely a pro hoopster before he became a big-time huckster. Tennis’s Andre Agassi, he of the ponytail and black socks, puts it bluntly in one of his commercials: “Image is everything”—an ethic he exploded last week by proving he could also play, winning the U.S. Open men’s title.

As the sports mania has spread, it has bared its undeniable downside. Jocks do not always make ideal role models; most of the heroes are men, not the best message for young women. Female groupies may not be the mentally healthiest bunch. Young athletes—most of whom have about as much chance of making the pros as of curing cancer—may neglect school or take steroids in pursuit of the impossible dream or, among girls in the gymnastics world, starve themselves into impossible shapes. And men who made their fortunes building ships or peddling beer or used cars, who bought eagerly into the glamor of sports, are free—after a dance of death with fellow millionaires who actually play the game—to trifle with the public trust, to cancel the World Series. “I’m stunned,” said Doug Muncey, a bartender at Grumpy’s in Montreal. “This was the Expos’ year. We could have had such a phenomenal September and October. I guess it’s gonna be just curling for the rest of the season, or whatever we’ve been watching.”

For all of that, sport still has its moments—the ones kids dream about, act out, the ones that transcend all the glitz and greed. Even then, though, there is a difference. On the October afternoon in 1960 when the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski belted a ninth-inning home run to stun the Yankees and win the World Series, a generation of boys, having run breathlessly home from school to watch the black-and-white broadcast, became baseball fans for life. But TV executives eventually discovered that they could command a larger audience—and heftier advertising fees—if the autumn classic were played in prime time. And so it was that, the next time a ninth-inning homer ended a Series—the night in 1993 when the Jays’ Joe Carter cleared the SkyDome fence to sink the Philadelphia Phillies—many young kids were already asleep. □