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Baseball needs more minority managers, and if the politicians let the game alone, the game will get them.

Baseball Will Fix Itself

Baseball is a wonderful topic. Ken Burns knows it. So does George Will. It seems that every scribbler with an opinion eventually must do a baseball piece. So, with Joltin' Joe in his grave and our "lonely eyes" fixed on the last season of the century, here's my two cents' worth on baseball. A few months ago, President Clinton threw down one of his made-for-TV town hall confabs. Baseball was discussed at length because the beleaguered chief exec wanted to change the subject to anything other than Monica. And hey, he knows it's a great topic too. On the live ESPN broadcast, a panel of experts talked about the game. It was touted for being ahead of the rest of society in its acceptance of blacks and other minorities as players. Then the lack of the same as managers was lamented. In what should come as no surprise to the reader, there were also some strident voices suggesting the current administration, or the courts, should take a hand in this and force change on professional baseball to correct the problem. Statistics were offered as proof of discrimination. Well, I don't want to digress into a diatribe about how many half-baked schemes have been launched by such well-intentioned trouble-shooting, so I won't. Instead, I'm going to offer just one example of what can be wrong with that line of thinking. In this case, it's simply short-sighted. In a nutshell, here it is: Baseball is a finely tuned system. It works a hell of a lot better than most things the government's bureaucrats have got their hands on. And best of all —baseball can, and will, fix itself. At the center of why baseball will do the right thing is the fact that baseball is a beautifully designed, highly structured competitive sport. The dimensions of the playing field and the rules of the game were worked out years before such sports as football or basketball began to develop.You have to know the game very well to manage a team. The rules are precise and the margin of error is small. It's 90 feet down the baselines; not 91. Three strikes and you're out — go sit on the bench. Four balls and you take first base. After three outs you're back in the field; not four, not five. There are only nine active players on each team; never 10. Nine innings, unless you need 10 or more. There is a perfect tension between the offensive and defensive team, and managing that tension takes extensive knowledge... Until recently the only black, former big-league players who were old enough to be managers were superstars in their day. I'm talking players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, the barriers against ball players based on race and background gradually wore down. While that was a long time ago, it did not open the floodgates immediately. The public's demand for excellence gradually pulled talent toward the game. However, in the '50s and '60s if a major league team had a black player, he was an all-star. Virtually all of the second line, ride-the-pine, players on any team were white. The same was true for Latin ball players. Either they were the best player on the team, or they weren't there at all. Well, as any good baseball fan knows, former all-stars rarely make the best managers. The physical ability to dominate on the field of play just isn't the same thing as making decisions for a team. It turns out that sitting next to the old coaches in the dugout, during the game, is the best training for a future manager. A reason frequently cited for this phenomenon is that the starters on the field are too wrapped up in playing one position to see the big picture. Some would argue that the top players always have an intuitive aspect to their game that they can't teach. Then there's the sub, watching from the bench. He's not usually thought of as an essential part of the team, so he's looking for a way to stay in the game. He studies at the knee, accustomed to the same view of the proceedings as the manager and his coaches. For the last 20 years baseball teams have had more and more ethnic bench jockeys. Some of them have absorbed what it takes to manage. The natural quest for victory will eventually propel the best of them all the way to the front office. Baseball, because of its nature, will change as it must. Now, if the government wants to outlaw the "designated hitter," I'm all for it. However, when we see more big league teams run by minority fresh faces, politicians will claim they played a role. No doubt some will have. Nonetheless, it will be mostly due to the ever-expanding pool of qualified talent. Even baseball's worst citizens seem like nice guys compared to most of the mean spirits and slack dogs that run the game inside The Beltway. If the government's experts leave it alone, baseball will fix itself. F. T. Rea is Fan District artist/writer and mellowing know-it-all. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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