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World Baseball Classic ends life on earth

George Steinbrenner's enlarging jowls stared from under the headline that decried we would all die of the bird flu if Major League Baseball players were allowed to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Or something like that.

Mainly, owners of major league teams have greeted the notion of players representing their countries in this new-fangled, dadgum, Olympic-style event with 15-watt enthusiasm.

In other words, fairly typical of baseball owners throughout the pro game's 13 or 14 decades. Owners have balked and squawked over change for decades.

Back in 1969, when baseball players were becoming more like doctors and lawyers and barbers and wood workers -- people who were able to go work in a lot of different cities rather than be tied down to one city and one owner -- St. Louis Cardinal owner Gussie Busch opened the clubhouse doors to the press as he addressed his players during spring training.

Busch told the players he certainly "didn't mind" that they were trying to gain power through representation, but by gosh, the fans had been writing him letters and and calling him and these fans just were losing their high regard for the players.

Fans were telling Gussie that the players were getting fat on those $30,000-a-year contracts, and what about ticket prices? Would they be raised in order to pay salaries? Gee-wilikers, the fans didn't like that idea, Gussie said.

Gussie cried a lot about revenue as he spoke with the players. What he never mentioned was all the parking and concessions money the Cardinals pulled in never appeared on the books of the St. Louis Cardinals. All that revenue streamed into the Busch beer empire. That way, it was easier to make it look like the baseball team was just scraping by.

More than three decades later, player empowerment has failed to kill Major League Baseball. In fact, one could argue that George Steinbrenner in particular has been more influential in raising player salaries than free agency.

Owners even dig in their heels over changes they approve.

Owners: they know everything

When artificial turf came along, managers and owners proclaimed game scores would be so high that starting pitchers would be left in the game longer, the bunt would disappear, and all teams would practice slap-hitting instead of swinging away in an effort to bounce the ball past infielders on the speedier turf.

Oh. Outfielders would not be kept for their bats alone. They would have to be able to run. Power-hitting outfielders were in danger of extinction if they couldn't track down a ball.

Do you think today's format of six divisions and the wildcard in baseball is a fresh idea? It's not. Ancient Twin Cities columnist Sid Hartman likes to credit Bud Selig with saving the game by implementing expanded playoffs.

Yet it was discussed as a possibility in 1972. Owners were claiming baseball was hurting because 16 players in the game made $100,000 or more in 1971. Teams could not afford to remain in business because of the dreaded free agency, they cried. The sky is always pushing down on roof tops in the world of big-league owners.

There were 24 big-league teams in '71, so owners contemplated three four-team divisions in each league, with a wildcard playoff team. The owners told fans that with players making so much money more teams needed to stay in the race until the end so attendance and post-season interest would be propped up.

Free agency. Turf. The WBC. Nothing was more deadly to the game than the DH, many owners maintained.

Well, the DH has outlived its usefulness because there's plenty of offense in the game today, but instead of killing baseball, every league in America all the way down to T-ball brought in the DH. The National League is now in the biggest minority regarding the DH. Or smallest. Or whatever.

But back in the day fans were told the DH would give pitchers so much rest that they would be dominating. They wouldn't have to bat. Run the bases. Of course, few pitchers expended many calories batting, and fewer still found to their astonishment they were on base. So how batting tired them out is a puzzle.

With pitchers such as Nolan Ryan never being removed for a pinch-hitter, 30-game winners were inevitable, we were told, and Ryan was tabbed as the man most-likely. Great hitters would play so long that records would topple.

The DH kills Kenny

A truly great hand-wringing came over the notion that if pitchers didn't have to bat they would fling the ol' horsehide noggin-ward any old time, with no fear of recrimination. Dammit. They killed Kenny.

What happened instead was pitchers no longer give batters the Schick Special anywhere near as often as they did back in the non-DH days. Heck, if the ball is even on the inside black, batters go crazier than Texas during cheerleading tryouts. The more the DH took hold, the touchier the batters got.

Just slightly less comical was the prediction pitching staffs would be smaller because of the DH, and worse yet, some relief pitchers would lose their jobs. After all, no reason to remove a pitcher for a pinch-hitter.

What the owners, managers and some players forgot to mention was pitchers get tired, and sometimes they just plain suck.

Something new in baseball always sparks some owner to predict a fate worse than Abe Lincoln's marriage.

So just who will be the first player to blow out an anterior cruciate ligament in the World Baseball Classic? It will happen, maybe this year; just like it happens in spring training.

Hey, it's just baseball. In the "good old days," players went "barnstorming" in the winter, trekking through the South, rolling out of bed in Hooterville with half a load on, staggering out to some former cornfield to stumble around the bases, which were probably made out of old World War I land mines.

The only bad thing about the WBC is spring training doesn't really need any excitement -- it's the best time of year to watch some live ball, drench yourself in Mr. Sun and, if ink on paper is your deal, chase down an autograph or two.

But the WBC certainly isn't going to end George Steinbrenner's world as he knows it, and I'd appreciate it if editors would strive to keep his mug out of the newspaper.

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