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Play Ball, Not Business 

"Play ball!" although the way baseball begins has been the same for decades, the sport itself has undergone dramatic change.

Since this is March, the time for the boys of summer to begin spring training for our national pastime, it’s pertinent to note some changes that have taken the game from "play ball" to "play for business."

As a child, I loved it when my dad would say, "Let’s go to the ballgame." I vividly remember sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park after paying our 25-cent admission and seeing stars such as:

• Joe Cronin, shortstop and team manager for the Red Sox.

• Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn of the Boston Braves—a pitching staff of two who pitched nine-inning games and prayed for rain.

• Ted Williams, the best hitter in baseball, earning the highest salary at $100,000.

• Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees, a fan favorite who got at least one hit in 56 consecutive games.

The players were all willing to sign autographs before and after a game. It truly was an era when players were role models for fans of all ages to admire and imitate.

Today’s game has changed dramatically for players and fans. Gone are the days when a team manager occasionally was an active roster player.Now they’re all non-playing managers with support from a bench coach and coaches for pitching, batting, first and third base, and the bullpen.

Baseball salaries have risen from an average of $513,000 in 1989 to $3.2 million in 2008. The top position player in 2008 was Alex Rodriguez, earning $28 million, and Johan Santana had the highest pitcher salary at nearly $17 million. Rodriguez played in 138 games out of a 162-game season, earning $202,000 per game, $55,000 per at-bat and $182,000 per hit. Santana pitched in 34 games, of which two were complete games, earning $500,000 per game and $72,600 per inning pitched. What has happened to our "play ball?"

Other major changes include the formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, resulting in the elimination of the baseball reserve clause that held a player to one team. The MLBPA created free agency and arbitration, allowing players to seek better compensation from other teams when their contracts came up.

Salaries climbed to astronomical levels, changing the relationship between the average fan and the players, as well as the strategies of the game. Because of their high salaries, players were rarely sent to the minors if they failed to perform. Tactics on the field changed to avoid the possibility of an injury, and contracts were not in jeopardy if a player did not meet expectations. As a result, fans’ perception of players has often changed from larger-than-life heroes to simply spoiled and overpaid.

The question remains, "What’s in the future of ‘play ball’ or ‘business for play’?" The Red Sox negotiated a $100 million new spring training ball park in Fort Myers. The Yankees are moving into the new $1.3 million Yankee Stadium in April 2009, with the top ticket price at $2,500. Two high-profile pitchers and an infielder were recently signed to multiple-year contracts totaling $423.5 million. Major league teams spent $2.88 billion on player salaries in 2008, up from $2.71 billion in 2007.

Who pays the freight? Will the fans pay increased ticket prices, high food tabs, increasing memorabilia costs and other charges? I still look forward to the "play ball" cry from the umpires, but I yearn for the days when baseball was played for fans rather than for players and for business. I have to wonder if our national pastime will continue to exist in future years unless major changes are forthcoming, such as player and team salary caps. Who knows, maybe major league baseball will get a government bailout!

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