We've all heard the whining and crying about the Yankees and Red Sox, with a few other "minor" offenders thrown in. Unless you're a fan in Boston, New York or Philly, you've almost certainly wrung your hands over the lack of parity, and been ready to sacrifice a rubber chicken to the baseball gods for a salary cap. "Please, Dear Gods, parity is all I ask..."
The biggest arguments in baseball must come from the heart—not the wallet. It is this dimension that the argument lacks; one wonders why the same degree of gravity as say, the debate over the damnable DH or even the irrelevancy that is inter-league play doesn't attach itself to the salary cap squabble.
Salary-cap woes are brushed aside because baseball has always been a game to appeal to the heart first, then the head a close second. That very one-two punch is why we geeks have always been so attracted to our game; we crave the ability to take what's in our heart and put it into qualitative physical form.
Just like the fact that we rarely have the ability to walk up to a girl and tell her just what's in our soul, to MAKE her fall in love with us, baseball requires that "heart" dimension. If the argument don't contain passion, sports fans, it just falls flat.
So...here it is.
Baseball's national soul craves two things: misery and joy. The pain must also be present; there's a certain expected melancholy in a baseball fan's soul.
The feeling we get as the World Series ends, happiness or disgust at the result, also comes with the knowledge that there is a long, cold hard winter between today and "pitchers and catchers report." It's why baseball attracts so many die-hard (pardon me) Catholics—that sense of melancholy balances the scales.
You can't have pure joy all the time—baseball just won't allow it.
In baseball, everything—everything—must be earned. The road to The Show is like no other sport; in basketball, football and hockey, you're shot right into the big time, but Our Game is different for all but a very special few. You've got to earn it in baseball like nowhere else.
It's not just this way for the Nuke LaLooshes of the world. The earning of your place in the baseball world, your very legitimacy, must be paid for. And the only acceptable currencies are tears, frustrations and the refusal to give up, despite years of disappointment.
Take the Boston Red Sox and their fans, for example. The 2004 variant, The Enders Of The Curse, clearly bought their way into the winner's circle, didn't they? And yet...and yet, we didn't mind, really, did we?
Because the Red Sox and their fans had PAID (oh, how they had paid) for their ticket to glory like no other fans. Even today, to say you are a longtime Sox fan gives you a certain patina of respect; you've suffered, my friend, come on in. Pull up a stool, you're one of us.
...or at least you were, for a few years.
From Buckner back to The Babe, Bostonians had a special kind of heartbreak. We all know the story. Whether it was the curse of the Bambino or Mookie Wilson's grounder, you just knew that Red Sox fans were put on this earth to help balance baseball, to make the story whole. On one hand, joy—the possibility of a win. On the other, misery—suffering, year after year.
Baseball demands, craves, aggressively seeks out balance—and right now, we're all out of whack.
Each team has to go through a dry spell. It's practically written in the 10 Commandments Of Baseball; if you don't suffer, you ain't earned it. (I think Casey Stengel would make a great "Baseball Moses", but I digress...)
We long decry the spending habits of the Yanks & Sox, and, at various other times, the Mets, Dodgers, etc. We're casting wary eyes on the Phillies and Rangers now, wondering if they're succumbing to "the spending disease" as they mirror our nation's swollen budgets, with the taxpayer shouldering ever-larger burdens. Ever since the joyless Expos left town, teams have suddenly become worried that their fans won't accept "the rebuild."
What a crock.
In the soul of the true baseball fan, the genuine article, the real McCoy, there exists an understanding. We SHARE in baseball. "OK, it's YOUR turn now." In our sport, lone amongst them, there is a legislated and enforced equality; first it's your turn, then it's my turn. In all the others, you could keep the ball all day—you don't HAVE to share.
With us? three outs, now give the other guy a turn.
In much the same way, the big spenders of MLB have robbed from the spirit of baseball. It's an honor, a privilege, to suffer through the lean years of a rebuild. The win is your reward, and how sweet it is...
You don't feel it the same way if your team's expected to win. It's more like an addiction, and not only does depression run rampant if you don't win, those World Series victories just don't mean as much without the suffering. It's true, isn't it? They just don't feel quite as good.
Remember this, baseball fans.
YOU MUST SUFFER IN ORDER TO TRULY WIN.
The reason we don't grant you that grudging respect when you come to visit, the reason you feel dismissed, is because you haven't earned it. You're our "bonus baby," the kid straight out of college, the arrogant @X$!% that we won't love the first year, even if he hits .330 with 30 dingers.
Baseball is out of whack. Oh, it's not fatal—baseball in SOME form or another will always exist—but baseball's soul is nurtured by a steady dose of failure, of melancholy, of lessons learned.
Baseball teaches you how to "man up," deal with disappointment, pick yourself back up, put in the hard work and realize, "Hey, there's always next year."
When you buy a championship, when you go out and purchase, year after year, a Carl Crawford or a Randy Johnson or a...well, it doesn't really matter who.
You can't buy a soul, baseball fans.
That's why nobody listens when we SCREAM to the HEAVENS for a salary cap. Yes, it really IS as plain as the nose on your face that a cap is the only thing that will restore legitimacy to baseball.
Yes, Uncle Bud does know, deep down, that his legacy will be openly sneered at. Yes, it's wrong that teams can keep trying to win the battle of the pocketbooks at the expense of true teams and true fans...but unless you can appeal to the souls of baseball men, you'll get nowhere.
That's what baseball's about. Hockey is the dash, basketball's the hustle, football satisfies our need for open war, but baseball is about the national SOUL...
...and you're tearing that soul apart, your own included, when you try to buy the whole ball of wax. Much like the nouveau-riche millionaire with his plastic wife, toupee and flashy car, you're buying a cheap imitation, and we'll forget about you by the spring.
One day, someone with the brains, balls and heart required—someone worthy of the title "Commissioner"—will install a salary cap.
On that day, joy will come back to baseball, and the seats will fill again.
Why? Because the fans that sustain you, the ones that explain the game to our little children, that instill that romance for the game that will keep them coming back, we understand what baseball's soul requires in order to nourish our own.
Sacrifice. Discipline. Loyalty.
These are the values that our land, and our sport, cherish...and you can't have joy without the attendant pain.
So, suffer, baseball fans. You know you secretly love it anyways—and one day, if you suffer long enough, your time will come.