Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Back around the beginning of the 80s boom, a book by two Harvard Biz School Professors, Abernethy and Hayes, made quite a stir. It was called Managing Our way to Economic Decline. Then the 80s really took off, and the 90s followed, adding two more zeros in the process, along with bringing us Jack Welch, and people sort of forgot a thesis for which there had seemed considerable pragmatic evidence when the book was published. But I think the thesis still holds, and I know of no more cogent starting-point than Major League Baseball.
AP reports that so far this season no less than 8 major-league clubs have set records for low attendance at a scheduled, regular-season game, including Cleveland, whose "the Jake" is as beloved a venue as there is around. This bears thinking about.
My own baseball life started to get serious in 1946, when I was ten. That year I remember lying on the floor of my father's apartment listening to the radio account of Game 7 of the world series, Red Sox-Cardinals, with the latter winning when Enos Slaughter took advantage of Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky's hesitation with the relay to barrel home. The next year, I was in the same position when Bill Bevens of the Yankees pitched (and eventually lost) the sloppiest no-hitter ever crafted. By then I had seen a few games - I had seen Dimaggio slide, a feat on the order of Horowitz playing Scarlatti - and I was hooked.
There were 16 major league teams then, 25 players per roster, and knew every last one of them, and I knew their batting or their earned-run averages. Being a fan was manageable.
I love baseball still, and in the years intervening since boyhood, I've seen it from the inside, since my late father was a member of syndicates that bought the Tigers from the Briggs family and, later, with Gene Autry as figurehead (the real stringpuller was a St. Joseph, MO, broadcaster named Ken Brown) started the expansion team the Los Angeles (now California) Angels.
But being a fan is no longer manageable - thanks to baseball's managemernt class: its owners. These idiots are usually characterized as among the country's most successful businessmen. They aren't. They are among the country's most successful system-exploiters, which i recognize in the minds of many comes to the same thing.
Well, as I say, I consider myself a fan, although I have scant idea who plays for who outside of New York. I hardly ever go to a game, although I try to go at least once a season if only to remind myself that the game is played by six-inch figurettes inside a TV.
By my lights, the game has all but lost its claim to be either our emblematic national sport or our national pastime.Baseball takes too long, is too expensive, is played at the wrong time, has become kid-unfriendly. To achieve all those things takes genius of a perverse sort. Last year, my son Francis and I trekked via the F train down to Coney Island to see the Brooklyn Cyclones play the Lowell Spinners (?) in the glistening new ballpark that was the overrated Giuliani's personal $25 million to the undeserving Wilpon family. When we left, after 2 1/2 hours, the score was 11-8 but the game was only in the bottom of the third inning.!
Why has this happened?
There isn't any one cause. Pitchers take forever, and now hitters do. Intervals of inaction are longer, which I suspect is for the sake of advertising - and this, I think, is where we can look to a larger canvas.
Major-League baseball is now almost entirely about TV, and TV is about advertising. So is magazine publishing about advertising. And the dot.com boom. What got lost in here have been fans, or readers, or 'Net nuts - and what they want from a given product. What they get out of whatever game or medium they have the option of tuning into or out of. Of course, it may just be that the pernicious example of Microsoft - which has achieved a multi-multi-billion dollar market value on the basis of products that in any other industry would be condemned (and presecuted) more roundly than the Pinto - has set the tone.
Years ago, at Lehman Brothers, when I started to travel the country doing investment banking, looking at different kinds of businesses, listening to all sorts of businesspeople, I soon began to wonder why it was that relatively little attention was being paid to what the customers wanted: not Wall Street, not the creditors, not the Madison Avenue types spouting demographics, but the customers. Especially when the most customer-oriented businesses, like Wal-Mart, or Home Depot, or EDS, or Cummins Engine, soon turned into the most profitable businesses around.
Then I started writing, and in the twenty years since, I've watch publishing degrade into somethings that seems to be about marketing and advertising, and hardly ever about readers and reading. Which may be why big publishing successes like John Grisham burst on the scene as complete surprises both to the industry and their own houses.
And if publishing has degraded, baseball has fared worse. Maybe because like every other business I can think of, there's been too much money around, a flood of wealth we've confused as being generated by our brilliance, rather than the accident of fiscal history that has let the dollar get away with a reckless behvior that history has permitted no other currency. Baseball, after all, is about nothing more than giving fans the timely opportunity to see talented athletes pitch, catch, run, throw and hit on lovel level playing fields in which the green that matters is the color of the grass and not the money. Unless the game is returned to those basics, and not just for the final seven-game Series of the season, the eight bad-drawing teams will become ten, twelve, eventually more - until there will be no one left for the Yankees to play, and baseball will have died. Suicide-bombed by its owners: the most brilliant businessmen in America.

Monday, April 15, 2002

Just as a matter of information, I have written my last column for The New York Observer. As the English say, I "sent in my papers" last week.
Why? Well. what I think is important and what the paper's readership thinks is important are obviously worlds apart, and after much reflection I've concluded: what's the point? We live in an era of extreme fractionation, so it's all about niche and venue. I noticed this some years ago when a couple of my novels were designated "Page-turner of the Week" by People, the largest-selling English-language magazine. Sales didn't spike ten copies, however - which led me to formulate the rubric: people who read reviews don't read People and people who read People don't read reviews. QED: if you take the world seriously, and are trying to communicate with others who do, The New York Observer ain't the place to be and to keep on writing there.is simply to beat one's head against a vacuum. From time to time, if I have anything I think worth saying, or spot something worth comment, I'll post it here. Check this space.
In the meantime, I shall cultivate my garden and ponder the mysteries of life, especially golf. This past weekend was all Masters, all the time. Tiger Woods won on Sunday on what must have been the most difficult course set-up ever for a major championship, thanks to the course's added length, which made difficult pin positions absolutely fiendish . His achievement was remarkable. The make-or-break, survive or die stretch at Augusta is holes 9-15. With one exception, Tiger played those holes in par or better and managed to put his approach shots in places from which he could easily get down in two, while his opponents were looking at multi-break 50-footers or worse and eventually fell too far back. In the eye of the storm, he kept a grip on his game, which is what golf at that level is about, I guess (never having been there).