March 27, 2007

The Reds Were First, or Why We Should Bring Opening Day Back to Cincinnati

Major League Baseball opens the 2007 championship season on Sunday night, April 1 when the New York Mets visit Busch Stadium in St Louis to play the Cardinals. The game will begin at 5:05 pm EDST and feature the reigning winners of the World Series in the Cardinals, and the Mets, who many consider one of the top teams in the National League.

The Sunday night timing is a creation of MLB’s relationship with ESPN. It is an attractive entertainment product. The game will be the only contest that day for Major League Baseball so it will attract the baseball world’s spotlight. More so, the game is placed the day after the NCAA’s Final Four basketball semi-final double-header on Saturday night, March 31, and the day prior to the championship game on Monday, April 2. The Mets and Cardinals will have the attention of the sports world (with perhaps the exception of two schools’ college basketball fans).

The isolation of the season opening game mirrors the move of the National Football League in recent years to play a single game on the Thursday evening prior to the Week 1 Sunday matches. Last fall, the New England Patriots met the Pittsburgh Steelers pitting the dynastic Patriots against the reigning Super Bowl champions.

2007 is the third consecutive year that MLB has opened on a Sunday night. In 2005, the Red Sox played the Yankees in the Bronx. Last year, Cleveland played the White Sox in the rain on the south-side of Chicago. The previous season’s World Series champion has the opportunity to bask in the national media attention for the night and pit itself against a strong opponent.

For all of its benefits, this move to Sunday night does come at a cost.

For all the benefits of media attention, advertisement revenue, and the spotlight for the two clubs, we disempower the strength of Opening Day and lose another connection to the long held baseball practice of showing the Cincinnati Reds the honor of playing the season’s very first game.

Opening Day is unique in the four American professional sports leagues. It coincides with the beginning of spring. Spring is renewal and it is new beginnings. In two weeks is the Christian holy day of Easter and next week is the Jewish festival of the Passover. Both speak messages of renewal and rebirth, and while rooted in their unique cosmologies and theologies, connect with and to the physical season in which we all participate.

American football is the late summer and fall. Hockey is a winter sport, the NHL playoffs not withstanding. Basketball is a winter sport, invented in western Massachusetts during the winter, despite its definition by the International Olympic Committee as a summer event. Only baseball returns to us in the spring and matches its season opener to the season and beginning of April.

In no city does this return enjoy greater municipal recognition than in Cincinnati.

On Monday, April 2, Cincinnati will host the 88th edition of the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. While its origins are humble, in a handful of local merchants closing up shop and walking together to the ballpark for the opener, it now has full city support and organization. This year, former Reds All-Star outfielder Eric Davis will be the grand-marshal of the parade.

Chicago has the St Patrick’s Day parade. Philadelphia has the January 1 Mummers’ Parade. New York does the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Pasadena has the Rose Bowl Parade. Each civic celebration speaks of the city’s character and speaks about our own connections to the event and the city. (Please do not speculate on how the Mummers’ Parade speaks of Philadelphia).

The Reds are the only team in the American or National Leagues that opens every season at home (barring labor strife work-stoppages). For many years, the very first game of the season was scheduled for Cincinnati.

We had this tradition to celebrate and honor the Cincinnati Reds as the first professional team in baseball history. The Reds’ first season was in 1869, seven years prior to the organization of the National League itself. The Reds had this crazy innovative idea to pay players to play the sport, and then charge admission to generate revenue. The Reds pioneered the business model.

When MLB celebrated its 100th-year anniversary in 1969, and 125th-year anniversary in 1994, they celebrated the birth of this business idea. Remember that all Major League clubs wore anniversary patches in 1994 to celebrate the 125th. The patches were all identical, featuring the MLB batter logo, except for the Reds’ patch which had a photograph of the 1869 team.

Rituals, neumonics, and traditions connect us to a narrative-line. The singing of the national anthem prior to the game began in war-time and frames the event as a community event. Managers wearing uniforms is a legacy of the time when most managers were also players.

Major League Baseball has become a slave to the economics of television and broadcasting. It is such a significant issue that its current deal with DirecTV is receiving scrutiny from Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and his colleagues in Congress. You would be a slave too if the television industry was paying you billions of dollars.

Major League Baseball is a professional company whose goal is to maximize profit and the return on the investments of its capitalists, the owners. This is all well and good. I enjoy consuming the product that MLB offers. And, MLB, for all of its smart minds, could find a way to balance the pressures of a national television contract and its desire for a unique Sunday night, single opening game product, with the pull of traditions that have made the game what it is. There is no valuable game without the work of those who came before us, especially the Reds.

Let the Reds have the Sunday night telecast. I will watch on Sunday night - not because it is the Cardinals and Mets - but because it is professional baseball and the game counts. Outside of St Louis and the New York metropolitan area, I suspect so too will most other fans. Opening Day – even Opening Night - belongs in Cincinnati.

March 20, 2007

Pete Rose is not a "scheming degenerate"

Pete Rose never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

He now says he bet on the Cincinnati Reds “every night” while he was manager in the late 1980s.

Jeff Passan, writing about Rose in a column called “Liar, Liar” in Yahoo! Sports on March 14, calls Rose a “scheming degenerate”. This is not an atypical response by journalists and columnists to this example and previous Rose utterances. I am fond of Passan’s writings and only quote him because I am a regular reader.

Pete Rose is not a scheming degenerate. At least he is not a degenerate - and if he is a schemer, he is a poor schemer at best.

Pete Rose is a narcissist and likely, a chronic liar.

The Reds have a team museum and Hall of Fame in their four-year old ballpark in Cincinnati, Great American Ball Park. Pete Rose is the most accomplished Reds player in history. He is number one lifetime for the Reds in at-bats, hits, and doubles, fourth in RBIs, and was an All-Star in 12 of his 19 seasons with the club. He is from the region and remains popular among Cincinnati fans. On Saturday, the Reds opened a new exhibit celebrating Rose’s playing-career and his Major League Baseball record for career hits.

The exhibit is appropriate given Rose’s achievements as a player with the Reds. Simultaneously, it is delicate opening such an exhibit because Rose is banned for life from Major League Baseball. As manager of the Reds in the late 1980s, Rose bet on the club and was expelled from MLB by the Commissioner in 1989. The Reds had to receive permission from the Office of the Commissioner for the exhibit.

Last Tuesday, March 13, Rose appeared in Cincinnati to celebrate the opening of the exhibit. Most individuals, including retired athletes, would appear, be gracious about being celebrated, smile for the camera, and leave with everyone feeling good. Rose can not do this.

In an interview on The Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio, reported by the Associated Press on March 14, Rose claims that as manager he bet on the Reds “every night”. As if he had not put a sufficient portion of his foot in his mouth right there, Rose justified doing so “because I love my team, I believe in my team.”

Let us set aside for the moment the poor marketing judgment shown by Rose in claiming something that makes him look bad and then offering a sorry explanation which he would have justify the poor choice.

Let us back up and consider the history of Rose’s admission to having bet on the Reds. John Dowd wrote the report in 1989 that collected the evidence against Rose and supported his ban. Dowd found that Rose bet on Reds games except when certain Reds pitchers were starting. Rose denied the veracity of the report. He attacked Dowd and denied having bet on baseball. Rose did this for 15 years. Then, in 2004, Rose published My Prison Without Bars in which he admitted that he had bet on the Reds. Dowd had been correct; Rose had been lying for the fifteen years.

So long as he is on the Commissioner’s no-fly list, Rose is ineligible to manage a ML team, which he would like to do, and to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Rose is 65 years old and can still petition the Commissioner for reinstatement. In this sense, he is on perpetual probation. His actions and words are the content now of his relationship with the game and his opportunities for a major league rehabilitation.

This is classic Pete Rose.

When the Atlanta Braves ended his 44-game hitting streak in 1978, Rose lashed-out at the team. He could have followed the lead of previous record-setters like Roger Maris in 1961 and Hank Aaron in 1974. But Rose could not be gracious. After all, he had just set the longest National League hit-streak. No, Pete verbally attacked the Braves and Atlanta pitcher Gene Garber for playing tough. Rose gratuitously attacked Phil Niekro, the veterans Braves pitcher and future Hall of Famer. Niekro is not exactly on any baseball bad-boy list.

As the Reds manager in 1988, Rose scratched umpire Dave Pallone during a manager-umpire argument. Rather than say ‘mea culpa’ and take his lashes for physically touching an umpire – a standard baseball no-no - Rose said that it was Pallone who had provoked him. Umpires make mistakes and are fallible and the need for umpire authority in baseball dictates that the umpire and League have the final word.

Jim Gray interviewed Rose on NBC at the 1999 World Series prior to Game Two when Rose appeared as part of the All-Century Team, Gray, being the journalist that he is and paid to be, asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. Gray asked Rose if he was prepared to admit that he had bet on baseball. Five years later, Rose would admit this in exchange for a lucrative book deal, but on national television, Rose attacked Gray for asking a “prosecutor’s question”.

Listen to Rose’s statements from Monday, March 13. These are the statements of one self-obsessed who believes he does only good: “I believe I’m the best ambassador baseball has”; “my name is synonymous with baseball”; fans would be “elevated” if MLB reinstated him. There is another word by which to describe this notion of self: Narcissism.

Even now, admitting that he did bet on baseball, Rose is not playing the part of the contrite penitent. This would be to eat even the slightest morsel of humble-pie. Ever self-indulgent, Rose now autographs baseballs with the inscription “I bet on baseball”. (Yours for the low low price of $350!). Last Tuesday, his tone was almost to gloat about having bet on games making himself a paradigm of managerial belief in one’s players. Rather than say “I bet on the team and I am sorry I did”, Rose celebrates it.

Pete Rose is a narcissist.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-IV, which is the clinical authority on the subject, divides personality disorders into three clusters based on symptom similarities. Narcissism is part of Cluster B. It is exhibited in grandiosity, obsessive self-interest, and the primary pursuit of selfish goals. It is estimated that this disorder is exhibited in 1% of the general population.

As Casey Stengel would say, “You could look it up!”

I am suggesting that Pete Rose is not a degenerate schemer but rather that he is mentally troubled. We know that he has struggled with a gambling addiction. We know that he shows himself to be a liar.

It is time for the media and for baseball to stop expecting Pete Rose to be someone he is not. Pete Rose is Pete Rose and that means he will continue to lie, that he will continue to consider himself bigger than he is, and that he will attack anyone who questions this self-perception.

Rose is troubled and there is nothing to suggest that this will change. What can change is our understanding of mental illness and the place out of which Pete is acting. When we do this, we might move beyond calling him names and begin making sense of his reputation-destructive behavior and words.

March 13, 2007

The HOF Veterans Committee Whifs on Two

The National Baseball Hall of Fame announced on February 28 that the Committee on Baseball Veterans, what we know colloquially as the "Veterans Committee", had once again chosen to elect none of the candidates under consideration.

This Committee, under the rules redefined in 2001 after the election of Bill Mazeroski, an election that many within baseball viewed as one in which sentimentality outweighed Hall of Fame-merit, now votes every two years. It works out that these votes take-place in odd-numbered years. The Committee considers players who had not been elected by the Baseball Writers´ Association of America during the player’s 15 years of eligibility following his retirement and the requisite five-year waiting period.

As has been the past few years, frontrunners were Gil Hodges and Ron Santo. The 2005 publication of Thomas Oliphant's Praying for Gil Hodges and Santo's battle against diabetes and the 2005 DVD This Old Cub only increased the din of support for these men. But, they have not been sufficiently popular to win election. In the 2005 vote, they each missed by eight votes. Last month, Santo missed by five votes and Hodges by 12. We will see them again as candidates in 2009.

Managers, umpires, executives, and pioneers are only considered in every-other election. They were voted on this year and will next be subjects of the poll in 2011.

The Veterans Committee is viewed by some, including Hall of Fame chairperson Jane Clark, to be a "second chance" for players denied election by the BBWAA. [See Ms. Clark's statement of March 2, 2005 following the release of the 2005 Vet Committee vote]. More than merely a second-chance, the Veterans Committee gives the player, judged and passed-over by the journalists, the chance to be judged by his peers, retired players, who now compose approximately 75% of the Committee. It is an appeals court.

For umpires, managers, general-managers, and other MLB executives, the Veterans Committee is the only gateway into 25 Main St. (An exception has been the special committees to consider and elect Negro League candidates. These congresses were exceptions to address oversights born of historical-system bias.)

For these non-players, the Veterans Committee is their 15-year BBWAA player-eligibility. Two candidates, one of whom was considered and not elected, deserve induction under these categories. They are Marvin Miller and Buck O'Neil.

Marvin Miller revolutionized Major League Baseball in the 1960s and 1970s. He was Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association from 1966 through 1982. Miller pioneed the very idea of collective-bargaining in pro sports when the Players' Association negotiated their first agreement in 1968. There had been no collective bargaining prior to this time. Under Miller's leadership, the players raised the minimum salary from $6,000 [Approximately $35,000 in 2006-dollars adjusted for inflation] to $10,000 [$58,000 in inflation-adjusted 2006-dollars]. You can read more about the players claiming more of the MLB-revenue pie in the post from December 26, 2006, "The Players Strike Back and Gil Meche Wins Big".

Miller helped the players break the Reserve Clause to gain the ability to choose their own employers after playing out a contract. Prior to, players were bound to their team which could renew their contract at-will. We like to gripe about how much the players make in free-agency. We often forget that the owners are no more entitled than the players to retain MLB revenue. More so, most all of us desire or would desire the chance to negotiate for ourselves the best terms of employment possible.

Living Hall of Fame players who played after at least 1976 and the advent of Free Agency, if not 1968 and the first collective bargaining agreement, should have voted for Miller this year. Miller received 51 of the 61 votes necessary this year for election. Let us hope he is given his due in 2011.

Buck O'Neil was not on the Committee's ballot this year and he deserves election - not as a player - as a pioneer in the Hall's Executives and Pioneers category. He did play for the Kansas City Monarchs, was the first Major League coach of color when he joined the Chicago Cubs' field-staff for the 1962 season, and a long-time scout for the Cubs and Kansas City Royals. He excelled in these positions and we are not electing him for these accomplishments. He deserves election for his work on behalf of the Negro Leagues, their memory, and the players who came before Jackie Robinson integrated the American League and National League in 1947.

O'Neil was the Negro Leagues' de facto Chief Marketing Officer for the past 20 years. He was instrumental in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City which opened in 1990 and of which O'Neil was Chairman of the executive board until his death last year. The NLBM runs a museum in Kansas City, supports educational programs, and serves as the licensing arm for Negro League team merchandise. When one purchases a cap for any of the 30 MLB, a portion is paid to MLB as a royalty. MLB is a profit-making business. When one purchases a Homestead Grays t-shirt or New York Black Yankees cap, a portion goes to the Museum which is a not-for-profit org.

O'Neil's most prominent work came with Ken Burns in Burns' nine-part series Baseball. Burns devoted "Inning 5", which he called "Shadow Ball" to the Negro Leagues. We saw and heard O'Neil tell a great deal of the story. This work opened the story of the leagues - the Negro National League, Southern Negro League, Eastern Colored League, East-West League, and Negro American League - and its teams and players to baseball fans born after World War II who had never seen the players in person.

The Baseball Hall of Fame had been considering and electing players from these leagues since the early 1970s. O'Neil was part of the group in the 1980s that considered such players.

We have come a great ways in integrating the history of these great teams - the Monarchs, Atlanta Black Crackers, Detroit Stars, Homestead Grays and on and on - into our current cycles of commemorations and celebrations. The Royals now have a yearly tradition of wearing KC Monarchs uniforms for a Turn Back the Clock game. The Detroit Tigers often wear Detroit Stars uniforms.

The Negro League history has increasingly become our collective baseball history. O'Neil was an activist story-teller and historian's subject. He was a baseball giant and for this work alone has earned his plaque in the Hall of Fame gallery.

Santo has his Cubs-loyalists to remind us of his merits and Hodges the legions of Brooklyn fans. Philadelphia Phillies fans long had a bumper-sticker that they displayed with pride on behalf of Richie Ashburn which read “Richie Ashburn: Why the Hall Not?!” Miller wore a suit and was the public-face of labor stoppages and owner complaints. There are no fans to sing his praises.

O’Neil is thought to have had his last opportunity with last year’s special committee on the Negro Leagues which elected 17 individuals who were not Buck O’Neil. With his passing departed the urgency to see him in while he was with us in the land of the living.

2011 will not be too late for either O’Neil or Miller who both led critical changes in Major League Baseball.