More off the diamonds than on?

Less than a month into the new baseball season and it begins to look like one of those years when much to our deepening agitation it's more about what's happening off the field than on the field. Consider the issues that are suddenly piling up:

There's the mess at Chavez Ravine, the mess in Queens, the fall of the latter day Sultan of Swat, with Roger the fizzled Rocket soon to follow. The proposed expansion of playoffs invites huge controversy, although no more than the mere suggestion "contraction" is back on the table. It's because stadium woes plunge Tampa and Oakland into crisis. Draft reforms are also demanded. Meanwhile, the Czar cleans house then tells us (with a straight face) that ''Steroid Era'' slugging records are untainted. Prices are up and attendance is down. And keep in mind that at year's end the sacred CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) expires.

As if that were not enough to worry about, they are also now telling us the Cubs probably fixed the 1918 World Series which anchored the loftiest pretensions of your very own Red Sox for nearly a century. Is it too late to ban Max Flack? Tell us it ain't so, "Shufflin" Phil Douglas.

The grand thing about baseball is that you don't need mere games to have endless grist for discussion, debate, or downright rancorous bickering.

We begin with the idiocy of expanding the playoffs which since it was first tentatively raised as a possibility has been inevitable because the one thing it will surely do is juice profits in the short term. The long term damage it would also do to the integrity of the pennant races and competitive balance in general would be, as usual, immaterial. Because in the hegemony of Czar Bud Selig, it is all about taking the money and running. Everything Bud does is measured, defined, valued and revered by how much more loose change it adds to the jangling pockets of his owner-buddies. Once an owner, always an owner, eh Bud? It's a bloody joke.

There is one potential snag in Selig's latest power play aimed at reconfiguring the game to appease his mercenary whims. Any such extension of the season will require the approval of the payers, under the terms of the CBA. Interestingly, the probability of adding another wild-card and with it another tier of playoff games to baseball's already bloated post-season has sparked highly negative reactions from the players and not just because they are essentially lazy louts who instinctively resent the suggestion they should work more for the many millions they are grossly overpaid.

Extended playoffs will definitely be an issue in the next CBA negotiations set to begin soon after the current deal runs out precisely two weeks before Christmas. It's a solid bargaining chip for the players. Nor do you need to be a rock-ribbed traditionalist to also be opposed.

Unquestionably, adding another wild-card team would jack up the late season suspense by expanding the mathematical possibilities and creating a significant number of games in the stretch that have greater meaning thereby guaranteeing heftier gates, more interest, higher ratings, etc., ad nauseam. That's obvious.

But so too is the certainty that the team added to the post-season tourney will be weaker and less deserving team than the others and that in so doing you only further water down the importance of your interminable regular season -- which is your most precious commodity -- and thereby cheat the teams that have excelled over the long haul. It's at best a gimmick; one that would extend the post-season deeper into November when baseball has no business being played in at least three quarters of its markets.

The internal debate now appears to center on how long a new playoff round matching the two wild-cards might last; one game, three games or five games. A one-game playoff would be a fluke. But anything more than one game would be a terrible disservice to the deserving teams. Sitting around a week waiting to get back on the field does not sharpen a baseball team. The odds would be increased that a team that's little more than mediocre from March through September will somehow prevail in October and November.

That, of course, is what effectively happened just five years ago when the wild-card Cardinals, a .500 team until the last week of the regular season, lucked out and won a World Series. But then that's what Selig and his TV pals want; a contrived and artificial melodrama that prevails over genuine substance. It's called, "Great Television."

If Major League Baseball does not protect the integrity and meaning of its regular season stretching over more than six months and encompassing 162 games per team it will ultimately fizzle. This is not the NHL, NBA or NFL. They could expand the post-season of football, which presently features 16 regular season tilts, to three month's duration and qualify 20 teams and it would be acceptable. There are no easy answers for baseball. The playoff issue will be more controversial than the Czar expects.

Regarding the other matters, the problem of the Tampa and Oakland franchises which stem from their hopeless stadium situations will end up getting deferred. There's no way MLB can order municipalities to provide Taj Mahal's for the local team as has breezily been done in the past. The Rays and A's are contractually bound to the playpens they now occupy and they cannot be moved elsewhere nor is eliminating them, as is allegedly being considered, a reasonable option.

As for the slugging records of the infamous Steroid Era, Mr. Selig can go on pretending Barry Bonds is ''The Man,'' which is what he effectively proclaims when he declares Bonds' home run records must be accepted. The rest of us will stick with Hank Aaron and even Roger Maris. Selig says he doesn't like "asterisks." But he must find some way to indicate the bulging stats of the performance enhancement boys were bogus. Frankly I see nothing wrong with an asterisk. Simple as it may be, it speaks volumes.

In the short term, however, nothing surpasses the necessity of resolving the monumental problems of the Dodger and Mets' ownerships. It's one thing to have fringe franchises slide into the pits; quite another to have it happen to your crown jewels. The Mets financial woes are deeply embarrassing. But the Dodgers' fiasco is far more disturbing.

Selig is being praised for seizing control of the Dodgers from those swinging kids, Frank and Jamie McCourt, who -- but for the grace of the baseball gods -- might have ended up owning the Red Sox. The McCourt's have disgraced themselves and humiliated the game. They richly deserve to be placed under Baseball's version of house arrest.

But thus cornered, these desperate characters are not going to go away quietly in the night. The oncoming law suit will be the biggest legal crisis baseball has faced since that succession of landmark courtroom battles some 40 years ago destroyed the reserve clause and paved the way to free agency. It's going to be bloody and someone is going to get hurt.

In straight-jacketing the menacing McCourt's Selig invokes his celebrated ''best interests of baseball option,'' which is what commissioners always do when they don't know what else to do and lack a better legal option. It's always worked in the past. But one of these days, some smart lawyers are going to come along and knock that shaky premise out of the ballpark.

After all, "the best interests of baseball" are in the eye of the beholder. No doubt that venerable cad Judge Landis devoutly believed he was acting in baseball's "best interests" when he rigidly maintained the segregation of the game for a quarter century while ruthlessly persecuting those who disagreed with him.

Obviously, the situations are not comparable. Landis was a despot. Selig is trying to do the right thing. But can he make it stick, legally? Frank McCourt, who one senses knows how to handle himself in an alley, is determined to find out. Hang on, Fans. This bloody mess is just beginning.

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