NEW YORK - The middle class is drained financially. Businesses are hurting, laying off workers at an alarming rate. The stock market is a mess.
Maybe problems with the country's economy have not yet filtered down to Major League Baseball, but commissioner Bud Selig is keeping an eye on the situation.
"It's a source of great concern," said Selig in yesterday's State of the Game address at the Baseball Writers Association of America luncheon. "The gas prices and the economy. The picture is very bleak. I've worried a lot about it. So far, we're OK. Time will tell. But I'm very skittish on that point."
Selig said he has not heard complaints from individual clubs pertaining to rising operating costs. He said he checks the attendance figures every morning, and while acknowledging "there's no margin for error," he said the sport is on pace to draw 80 million-81 million fans, which would be an increase over last season.
Selig is sensitive to the plight of millions of Americans going through tough economic times. He said he's cognizant of the rising price of tickets, how hard it is for a family of four to afford a ballgame, but he said he's leaving it up to the teams to make the best read of their market and act appropriately.
"We are family entertainment," he said. "You can't draw 80 or 81 million people if you are not family entertainment. We play every day. So I am sensitive about ticket prices. What I always assume is that the local club is sensitive to its market, knows its market, understands its market, and will do what they think will work in their market."
Selig said the average attendance is around 32,000 and 45.5 million fans have passed through the turnstiles. Oh sure, in places like San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego, where gas prices are around $5 a gallon, and Florida and Tampa, where the ballparks are horrible, attendance is a concern. While many teams enjoy healthy advance sales, the walkup crowd soon could be diminished.
The owners are wealthy men, but none of them enjoy losing money. Some are doing that in their main businesses, so they certainly don't want to take a bath with their teams.
The Red Sox attract overflow crowds at every game at Fenway Park and also have the highest road attendance, drawing an average of more than 38,000. But there are pockets of concern, including in Tampa, where a stadium plan on the waterfront in St. Petersburg was voted down, and in Miami, where former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman has filed a lawsuit to stop construction of a Marlins stadium. The A's plan to build a stadium in Fremont in the Silicon Valley has met with much resistance because of the economy. The Red Sox, who are trying to move their spring training facility out of Fort Myers, Fla., possibly to Sarasota, also are up against the tough economic climate in finding funding for a new complex.
The Cubs, Mariners, and Padres all might be for sale.
Baseball may be healthy now, but Selig understands families soon might be cutting back on entertainment, taking fewer vacations, going out to eat less, and perhaps even taking in fewer games.
Selig addressed other issues as well:
He continues to offer the same response on charges that all 30 teams are colluding to keep Barry Bonds out of baseball. "Every club is free to do what they want to do," he said. "Nobody has talked to me about it. Clubs have made individual decisions based, I think, on a myriad of factors. Those charges have no basis. It's just an individual club matter."
Instant replay could be here for the postseason. "We are looking at it intensely," Selig said. "Obviously, if it occurs at all - and I want to say again that no decision has been made - but if it occurs, it will be in a very limited form. And once we're convinced that the bugs are out, it'll come quickly. So is there a chance, if we agree to do it, that it could be before the postseason? The answer is yes, there's a chance. But we've got work to be done yet."
He is concerned about maple bats shattering and addressed the suggestion of putting up netting to protect fans closest to the field. "The maple bat study is underway," he said. "I'm amazed. I can't remember this many bats breaking. It isn't just the people in the stands. Putting up nets, I don't think, is a practical solution. I think it creates a number of other problems. I'm concerned with the safety of the people on the field, whether it's umpires, coaches, people in the dugouts, trainers, players. It's a health and safety matter I'm very concerned about."
Selig said balls and bats flying into the stands "is a problem that's been going on for 130 years. We'll look at all solutions, but we need to find out the root cause first. And while you're always concerned about the health and welfare of the fans, you also don't want to obstruct the view, which causes a major problem. So you sort of have to weigh one against the other."
Selig said there's support for a worldwide draft after allegations that officials from the White Sox and Nationals might have been skimming money from young Dominican players. "I'm very concerned," he said. "And we have our own investigative unit. They are hard at work. We don't treat anything lightly. It is being thoroughly investigated. I'm being kept abreast of it and we will follow it as it unfolds.
"I don't want to comment on the investigation, but there's certainly no evidence that it's widespread. I'm always concerned about any matter that reflects on the sport. We have been on top of it. And we'll do whatever we have to do to clear those matters up. We understand exactly what's going on."
Finally, Selig defended the All-Star Game determining home-field advantage for the World Series. He said going by teams' records would be difficult because if there are tight races, it would give clubs little time to secure hotel space to accommodate the postseason crunch. The commissioner reasoned that the current setup gives cities three months to prepare.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.