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Cook: Baseball players could learn a lot from football

Friday, August 30, 2002

What a glorious afternoon it was for baseball in Pittsburgh yesterday. If you had to pick one spot in America to spend your time, you could have done a lot worse than fabulous PNC Park. Even the results of the game were pleasantly surprising. The Pirates didn't just beat the Atlanta Braves to take the series. They beat what had been the National League's best team on consecutive days in games that were started by Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

"I think our offense went on strike a few days ago," Braves star Chipper Jones said afterward. He was so despondent about losing twice to the lowly Pirates, not to mention the possibility of a real strike today, that he passed on an opportunity to go to the Steelers-Minnesota Vikings game last night. And he's a huge Steelers fan from way back.

"I'm just not in a very good mood right now," Jones said.

What a shame.

Not that Jones was sour. That was a good thing, right? It's a shame he didn't make it to Heinz Field to see a real sport, one that's healthy and flourishing and works for all teams and everyone involved. And it's a shame he didn't take Jason Kendall and Brian Giles and Mike Williams with him.

It was pretty terrific night for football in Pittsburgh, as well. The baseball players might have enjoyed the scene in the parking lots where thousands of Steelers fans gathered hours before what was a meaningless exhibition game. Their egos might have been stung by the fact most fans were completely oblivious to what had happened inside PNC Park and couldn't care less that Aramis Ramirez hit a long home run or that the Pirates' bullpen shut down the Braves or that Williams picked up his 38th save. But it would have done them good to see people having so much fun and being so excited about a sports event.

Steelers fans already are thinking Super Bowl. Better than that, they know their team has a fair shot at getting there, just as all competently managed NFL teams do.

What a concept!

It would have been a real education for the Pirates to see that kind of passion, to feel it first-hand. Kendall has played here for seven years and hasn't come close to experiencing it. The way baseball is, he probably never will if he finishes his career in Pittsburgh.

Despite those two great wins against the Braves, it was kind of sad to watch the crowd leave PNC Park yesterday. The fans weren't just wondering when there would be baseball again in light of the threatened strike. They were asking themselves why they should give a damn. Sadly, it was hard to come up with a good reason.

Even Jones could have learned something at Heinz Field. In Atlanta, where the Braves are about to win their 11th consecutive division title, attendance has dropped every year since they opened Turner Field in 1997. It was 3.4 million that year and is on pace to be about 2.6 million this season. Maybe it's true what they say, that Braves fans are the most spoiled in the country. But maybe, just maybe, Atlanta fans are like a lot of us and are having an increasingly difficult time relating to athletes who make an average salary of $2.4 million, yet still were talking strike in our post-9/11 economy.

That's why the baseball players will end up as big losers with their strike threat. They'll be wealthy losers to be sure, but losers nonetheless.

By now, there could be an agreement that's heavily pro-player in the baseball labor war. As the two sides continued negotiating into the night, it was clear the owners were capitulating again the way they always do. They didn't have much choice, really. They haven't owned their game for years. The banks do, so great is the owners' debt from their out-of-control spending.

The truth? The owners deserve this mess. They deserve every bit as much criticism as the players, if not more. Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks deserves it for agreeing to pay Alex Rodriguez a quarter-billion dollars. Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy deserves it for doing a $10 million-a-year deal with Kendall ...

Speaking of McClatchy, it's hard to imagine him taking a stroll among the people the way Steelers owner Dan Rooney did last night. As is his habit, Rooney made the walk from his North Side home to Heinz Field. It was fun to see him stop every two or three steps to accept the handshakes and pats on the back and good-luck wishes. At that point, he must have been thankful his father bought a football team instead of a baseball team.

Wouldn't it be fun to hear what Pirates fans would tell McClatchy these days?

Actually, one with a big banner did have a message for him and his team at PNC Park yesterday: "Fix it or don't come back."

What's sad is there is no way to fix baseball. In the end, the owners will brag about squeezing a few concessions from the players, but those will do little more than barely slow the outrageous salary growth. They won't help the game's competitive issues. Kendall, Giles and the rest of the Pirates will enjoy their trips to the bank, but they're looking at least another decade of losing baseball. So are we.

You're probably not too concerned about that this morning, though.

There are too many good things to talk about. Kordell Stewart looked surprisingly sharp in his first significant action of the preseason. Jerome Bettis had a 27-yard run. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue had big gains as the running game picked up. Antwaan Randle El made another spectacular play with a 24-yard catch. The first defense shut out the Vikings for as long as it played, nearly two quarters. Even Todd Peterson kicked a 33-yard field goal into the open end at Heinz Field.

All is well with the Steelers.

With or without the Pirates, all is well with Pittsburgh.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1525.

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