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Sunday, April 4, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Feinstein's `Play Ball' Says Baseball On Brink

Scripps Howard News Service

Baseball has problems. Big problems. But it also has some unexpected positives - if you look hard enough and long enough.

So says investigative reporter John Feinstein.

"These are ugly times if you love baseball," said Feinstein, who just finished "Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball."

"Baseball is a big, often brutal business. But it's worth saving and worth caring about, even with all of its problems."

Feinstein went into this year-long look at the 1992 season with some trepidation.

"I thought all baseball players were jerks," said Feinstein, whose earlier insider books were on college basketball ("A Season on the Brink" and "A Season Inside") and tennis ("Hard Courts").

"That's because all baseball writers I know said `Awh, why would you want to do this? Baseball players ARE all jerks, they're arrogant, they're spoiled.'

"But after dealing with tennis players for a year and a half, baseball players are Mother Teresa by comparison."

Then, there is Barry Bonds, the $43.75-million man.

"The only guy that blew me off completely was Barry - who asked me for money," said Feinstein. "When I told him reporters don't pay sources, he said, `I'm not talking and if you use my name in the book, I'll sue you."'

Feinstein quotes Pirates public relations vice president Rick Cerrone: "You have to remember one thing at all times when dealing with Barry - this is not an adult. This is a 9 year old. He's a 9-year-old kid in the body of an extraordinary 28-year-old athlete. He's not a horrible guy, he's just a very immature person."

Feinstein says players aren't the problem with baseball.

"I was amazed at the owners. It's like they have this chart and they look at it and say, `How do we screw up today? Ah, there - we'll fire the commissioner and we'll screw around with Marge Schott and we'll reopen the union contract when there's no reason to open the contract and we'll let the TV problem drag on forever.

"These can't be stupid guys. You don't get to be that rich being stupid."

But, then again, they might be. A symbol of stupidity, says Feinstein, is the labor problems that keep cropping up in the form of threatened strikes and lockouts.

"The best quote I have that summarizes all the labor problems is when (ex-commissioner Fay) Vincent said `If there is another work stoppage, the public will see this as a battle between a bunch of cheap billionaires taking on a group of whiny millionaires.'

Can the labor friction be solved? "As far as short-term labor problems are concerned, it's all in the hands of Don Fehr (executive director of the players' union) and Dick Ravitch (head of the Players Relations Committee, the owners' negotiating arm)."

And Ravitch, says Feinstein, created part of the problem by getting Vincent fired.

"The guy who got Vincent was Ravitch. He convinced owners Vincent had to go if they were to do battle with the players. Ravitch said, `If I'm going to go do this, Vincent has got to be out of the way.'

A hint that Ravitch would get his way? Feinstein says it was Ravitch's $750,000 salary - $100,000 more than the owners were paying Vincent.

Feinstein quotes a fired Vincent: "A lot of these guys (the owners) think they're smarter than everyone else. They think they're going to outsmart people - the union, the networks, the public, anyone you can think of. And each and every time they think that, they find out they're wrong; usually the hard way."

Feinstein's pick as next commissioner?

"Pat Gillick (Toronto GM). He's smart, gets along with people, understands the problems of the game and is an exec more in tune with the players - he can get the respect of both sides."

A strong theme running throughout "Play Ball" is the tragedy that teams have to deal with on a a surprisingly regular basis. Oriole infielder Tim Hulett's son Sam died after he was hit by a car. Pirates coach Rich Donnelly's daughter Amy died of brain cancer. Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda's son Tommy died apparently of AIDS.

"What I try to reflect with these stories of tragedy is that these guys are like the rest of us. They have the same traumas, tragedies and horrors as the rest of us," said Feinstein.

"When something happens to them, they still have to go out and do their job - like you would have to - even though they are filled with grief. And it affects how they do their jobs. It has to."

The recent boating deaths of Cleveland pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews are just another example of how tragedy affects baseball.

"The Indians were the model for rebuilding a franchise, but then this hits," said Feinstein. "Besides there being a hole in the bullpen, there is the emotional trauma of walking into the clubhouse every day and them not being there.

"All athletes think they're immortal. But if Steve Olin can die at 27 and Tim Crews can die at 31, it means, hey, we're all going to die. That's a hard thing for young athletes to face."

Because he seemingly can't face facts, Lasorda takes a lot of abuse in "Play Ball."

"Lasorda's a phony. Anyone around baseball knows that there are two Tommy Lasordas. One when the camera's on and one when it's off. He'll be talking about his diet or Dodger blue and then the camera will go off and he'll look at reporters and say `What the ---- do you want?' Or he'll scream at clubhouse boys about linguini. That's his style.

"I tried to reflect in the book that when his son died of AIDS (in 1991), it was an ultimate tragedy that he couldn't accept the fact that his son was gay. He was very close to Tommy Junior and was at his side when he died, but it was very sad that he told reporters that his son died of cancer. He'd scream at people who mentioned AIDS and his son's homosexuality."

But there was even another side to Lasorda. In "Play Ball," Feinstein recounts a clubhouse scene where he saw Lasorda with Orel Hershsier's 7- and 3-year-old sons, while Lasorda was still grieving over Tommy Junior:

"His mood as sour as could be. But when Lasorda saw the two boys, his face went soft. `Hey, Quint, Jordan, c'mere.' he said, hugging them both ... He began pulling food off the table in the middle of the room and feeding it to the boys. `What else you want? You want something to drink?' The boys kept nodding and Lasorda kept feeding, oblivious to anything else going on in the room.

"As they ate, he watched them for a couple of minutes, then pulled them into another hug, kissing them both intensely. `I love you guys, you know that?' he said. `I really love both of you.' There were no TV cameras around, no national columnists. As far as Lasorda knew, no one was watching him. For one moment at least, Tommy Lasorda was completely and totally real: a broken-hearted father reaching out to two little boys for love."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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