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Strike may be best thing for a fading sport

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2002

Perhaps we have been looking at this all wrong.

Perhaps we have been looking at this all wrong.

For some time now, we have been looking at this notion of a baseball strike as a lame-brained, ill-conceived, unpatriotic brainchild of Satan. This is not quite correct.

What we should have realized is that a baseball strike is a lame-brained, ill-conceived, unpatriotic brainchild of Satan whose time has come.

In other words, Bud, if you want to stop the games, be my guest.

In other words, Don, if you want to strike, go ahead.

Frankly, watching the clueless beats watching the hopeless.

This is a change in position for me, I admit. For years, I've made sport of Bud Selig and Don Fehr, baseball erasers. One of the main reasons is their roles in the unforgiveable strike that canceled the '94 World Series. In some ways, baseball still is trying to recover from that madness. In some ways, it never will.

Why, then, is an idea that was silly yesterday suddenly a good idea for tomorrow?

Because that's how far baseball has fallen.

Baseball needs repair more than America needs baseball. As a sport, it rattles and wheezes like an old car trying to take one last trip before it dies in the road. Still, it lumbers ahead, as if 1950 were going to come back and all the parts were going to be new again and everyone would be happy.

Attendance is down, apathy is up and the ball is juiced. The credibility of the sport has been shredded by rich men crying poor. Baseball asks for more from its fans than ever, and they seem to get less in return. The economics don't make sense. The people in charge don't get it.

Look around. It is May, and how many teams have a realistic chance to win the World Series? Three? Four? How many teams have a chance to win next year's World Series? And the next? About the same number? And so it goes.

Now look at the NFL. How many teams have a chance to win the 2005 Super Bowl? Pretty much everyone except the Bengals.

That, more than anything, is what is wrong with baseball.

That, more than anything, is why no one should fear a strike anymore.

It's time to call for change. Shut down the game, such as it is. Lock the gates. Unlike every other stoppage before, don't come back until you can spread around the competitiveness, and the hope, a little bit. That was the real problem with the '94 strike; nothing was really accomplished.

Around here, where people prefer to tell you why they don't go to a game rather than go, baseball has never grabbed the imagination. The team and the fan are co-conspirators in this, most of us realized long ago. Blaming one side or the other is like asking what came first, the dead chicken or the rotten egg. When a Triple-A roster plays to Double-A crowds, both sides have let each other down.

Those who do care, however, always seem to have the same question when they ask about the Rays. It's a question asked with pained eyes and a pleading voice.

"Is there any hope?"

Sure, if you want to be the Minnesota Twins.

Sure, if you want to be the Oakland A's.

Sure, if you want to trade in fifth place for, say, a nice little season where you finish third.

But if you're talking about winning the World Series? About leveling the playing field with the Yankees? About reaching the World Series? No, there isn't a lot of hope.

It grows more difficult to watch the Rays play against the Yankees or Red Sox without looking at the payroll disparity. If these guys were kids, the game would be stopped to make the teams more even.

Now, with the players already discussing strike dates, we should have a response. Go ahead.

Tampa Bay does not hit strikes. Late in games, it does not throw them. So it's supposed to fret about one? Ha.

From the looks of it, no one here fears contraction, either. Not if we are seeing the alternative. Are you supposed to be worried about being eliminated from the league when you've been eliminated from the race in April? What are Rays fans supposed to discuss? Which one of their players gets to go to the All-Star Game?

The Rays are the same as the Royals, who are the same as the Tigers, who are the same as the Padres, who are the same as the Pirates, who are the same as the rest of baseball's great unwashed. None of them has a chance. Either.

People seem to have grown weary of it. Attendance is down 5 percent. Remember those spanking new ballparks that were supposed to be the place to be? People aren't going there, either. Pittsburgh built a new park, and its attendance is down 33 percent, according to Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal. In Milwaukee, where another new park opened last year, attendance is down 27 percent. It's down 25 percent with the Rangers and their star-studded lineup, for goodness' sakes.

If you were an owner, wouldn't you be concerned by those numbers? Wouldn't you be concerned that more people seemed to believe an ex-pro wrestler than your commissioner when he told Congress how poor the game was? (People seem to believe in Forbes, too, for the record.) No one denies there are problems. Watching the Yankees win every year might have been okay in the '50s, when the other teams were content to draw a half-million fans a year. It isn't anymore.

These days, fans need hope. If it takes a strike to give it to them, then I say put the bats in storage.

This time, don't take them out again until the sides are even.

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