Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Baseball holds court for the next three months and we will find out how much mettle the contenders have as the temperature rises. We will speculate hirings and firings of executives and managers after ninth-inning collapses and prolonged losing streaks, such as what happened in Baltimore this week. We will fawn over potential free agents and salivate in the days leading to the trading deadline. Especially in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, these days bring about the usual talk of a player most fans never paid attention to until they realized he might be available to replace "that bum in right field". The four teams in these cities are constantly in flux, dealing for players from teams that... well, teams that have wonderful ballparks!

Even as early as the end of April, several fan bases knew that their beloved teams had no shot to contend for playoff spots this season. So what do they do for the remaining five months? They sit around and wonder why they spend so much of their time and money on a team that can't compete and more importantly, an organization that refuses to try.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Kansas City Royals. Pittsburgh Pirates. Baltimore Orioles. Most of the time, the Chicago Cubs.

These four teams were once joined by the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers. Then, a few years ago, ownership and management for both teams woke up one morning and decided to be competitive. The Tigers hit rock bottom when they lost 106 games in 2003 in Dave Dombrowski's first season as general manager. Including that disastrous season, Dombrowski's plan to rebuild the franchise had taken hold. Young players were able to taste the nastiness of losing and face their fears of failure. Free agents that may have come for the extra dollars were eventually woven into a carefully-crafted fabric that led to a 29-game improvement in 2004 and early-season contention for the Wild Card in 2005. These seasons were building blocks to a World Series appearance last October and a great shot to return this fall. As for Milwaukee, they have also made marked improvements that until now, were in peripheral sight of baseball fans. They also lost 106 games, this being in 2002. Even though there were small improvements in the two following seasons, fans turned away because of their disdain towards the product on the field. The team hadn't been a contender in either the American or National Leagues since 1984, but the tide had changed when Bud Selig's ownership group - as Commissioner, Selig could not be listed as an owner, though his daughter controlled operations - sold the franchise to Mark Attanasio in 2004. Within a year, the Brewers finished at 81-81. As the '05 Tigers, the '06 Brewers faded in the summer, but showed that there was a plan. This season finds Milwaukee leading a weak NL Central, but with the talent the organization has cultivated, there is a great vibe in Wisconsin that had been missing for over twenty years.

Those are organizations that could no longer claim that their new stadiums will make them competitive with the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers or Braves. Eventually, they had to field teams that would fight all season for those coveted playoff spots that the aforementioned teams held for years. Cartier bags and MAC makeup do not make for an attractive woman, a Hemi engine doesn't guarantee the excellence of a car and in sports, teams can't just rely on their buildings.

The Pirates - or the Quadruple-A Yankees affliliate as I call them - haven't had a .500 record in the fourteen years since Barry Bonds left for San Francisco. It's the longest current streak of any pro team in major American sports. They have had so much talent pass through PNC Park en route to New York, Chicago, Boston, etc. because ownership (notably Kevin McClatchy) refuses to invest dollars in keeping those players in Pittsburgh. The Devil Rays have been doomed from the start, failing to attract anyone to play in the Tampa area after the veteran-laden "Hit Show" bombed in 2000. As the Pirates, they believe that if the public pays for a new stadium - Tropicana Field, as ugly as it is, is only 17 years old - they can compete with the rest of the AL East. One of those teams, the Orioles, who just fired Sam Perlozzo, have had six (going on seven if Joe Girardi takes the helm) different managers since their last playoff season in 1997. They have the stadium (Camden Yards), the deep pockets (Peter Angelos has started to rein in the checkbook lately) and the talent, but don't have the patience or leadership to right the ship. Kansas City has been lost since the early nineties as well, but spent a few bucks for the first time since Bill Clinton was re-elected. It will take much more than Gil Meche to make up for giving up on Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, Kevin Appier, Carlos Beltran... the list goes on.

In Baltimore, 2006 was the birth of a grass-roots movement called "Free the Birds", a new effort by some fans to make Angelos understand the costs of continued losing. They had staged a "walk-out" during a September 21 game that was to signify the frustrations of Orioles fans throughout the Baltimore/Washington, DC region. In addition to the disputed number of participants, there was one other problem with the "walkout":

They showed up.

Fans of beleagured teams constantly complain about the lack of committment of owners or the inepitude of team management when it comes to contending for championships. Teams like the Orioles and the NFL Detroit Lions had endured slight public relations nightmares from these staged protests, but as the next season came on the horizon, all fans shared that eternal optimism a new day brings and still bought tickets. Fans still listened on the radio. Fans still watched on television after work. Fans still bought merchandise, even of players long since retired or deceased. Therein lies the problem. The hardest way to hurt a business is not through a preplanned, half-hearted production, but through civil disobedience. This isn't civil disobedience in the realm of the 1960s, where something much more serious than a game was at stake. Yet, one impactful tool of that era, as others thoughout time, was hitting owners in the wallet. In watching televised games, buying throwback jerseys the team holds rights for, tuning into radio broadcasts and attending games (even those great, cheap packages with the four footlong hotdogs), disenchanted fans are still giving the owner their money. That's probably worse than the frugalness and stupidity of these owners because you the fan are still willing to be taken for a ride.

There's a point where a person begins to grow tired of an unemployed roommate, a micromanaging boss or a lover that pulls her or him down. No matter how harmless or talented or familiar, eventually, the bond has to break for the best of both parties. When both parties mature, they can come back to each other and grow. The Tigers and Brewers have recently renewed their vows with their fans, who once lost faith in their beloved teams. It can be done, but how much longer can anyone wait?

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