No, he wasn't talking about the 8-0 defeat by the Rockies, or the Cardinals' lousy pitching, or Mike Shannon's koan-like metaphors describing the game. The fan was moaning about the Cards' campaign for a new stadium. Did the announcers have to have two guests on during the game to talk about how Coors Field rejuvenated downtown Denver? Is there no place or time to escape the new stadium hype? Is not the opening day of the baseball season hallowed ground, free of such hucksterism?
Apparently not -- there is no sanctuary from the stadium stampede. The blitzkrieg is relentless, with legislative lobbying, public-relations ploys and full-page ads almost everywhere. Maybe this will die down after May 18, when the Missouri Legislature adjourns. Meanwhile, there's plenty of baseball to be played.
During the opening-day game on April 2, play-by-play broadcaster Joe Buck had the decency to introduce the two stadium boosters by saying, "Cardinal ownership has asked us" to have them on, thereby at least providing a semblance of truth in advertising. Buck says he didn't know in advance of the game that the guests had been scheduled, but he doesn't dispute that his employer, the Cardinals, has the right to tell him who to interview during the game. He's not sure whether guests describing the benefits of other stadiums in other cities are in his future. "I don't think so," Buck says. "I haven't been told anything, but I hadn't been told anything until 10 minutes before the game started the other day."
With the Cardinals playing for the first time in new stadiums in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee and in relatively new venues in Houston and Phoenix, it's likely this tactic will be repeated. But don't look for anyone dropping by the booth when they visit the Giants' Pacific Bell Park; the San Francisco stadium was privately financed, except for about $20 million in infrastructure costs. No sense talking about that -- it'll confuse the listener.
Buck takes a resigned, Freddie Prinze, "I'm-just-doing-my-job" attitude toward having propagandists for new stadiums showing up during his watch. "I'm paid by the ballclub; that's their broadcast," says Buck. "If they want Kedso the Clown on, I've got to have Kedso the Clown on." Buck backs the ballpark proposal, so he sees no ethical conflict with regard to having guests on during the game, although he says there's no way to get into the "pros and cons" of the issue while he's calling balls and strikes and keeping track of what's happening on the field. Gee, that could be the reason the guests were on.
Buck takes -- depending on your politics -- a cynical or a libertarian view of the matter. "My bottom line is that people have a tough time these days signing off on something that makes other people a lot of money," he says. "To me, I don't care what Fred Hanser or Bill DeWitt or any of the owners make from the ballpark. It doesn't affect me; I don't care."
As has been stated in this space before, the Cardinals owners will get their new stadium, especially if voters don't get to decide the matter. The best thing the public can hope for is that the club's officers provide some K-Y jelly -- coverage of cost overruns, a kickback to the stadium authority if the owners sell the team, some guarantee that city public schools won't lose a dime in the deal. That's not too much to ask.
Beyond the controlled confines of a Cardinals broadcast, in other sports media the stadium issue has mostly been supported or ignored. Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz has taken two shots at it in the past year. "It's very much a governmental issue and very much a political issue, so I've been content to let them slug it out," he says.
Miklasz says he got one "angry phone call" from Mark Lamping after he stated in a column last December that building new stadiums to cover the rising cost of player salaries was "just a temporary fix." Lamping was "civil -- I don't want to portray him as some lunatic -- but he went on and on about how it's more detailed than that." Miklasz also ruffled the Cards' feathers when the team failed to sign pitcher Mike Hampton after offering him $100 million. The Berniemeister wrote that the money would be better spent on the new ballpark than on hiring a guy who's only going to work 33 times a year. "Suppose Mike Hampton would have blown his shoulder out after five starts. I don't think the stadium's going to fall down," Miklasz says. "A stadium doesn't have a rotator cuff."
Although his enthusiasm for the new ballpark has been dampened, Miklasz compares it to getting a present on Christmas morning: "It's wonderful, it's beautiful, you can't wait to enjoy it. At that point, you're not thinking about how much it cost or who paid for it."
John Hadley, an in-your-face sports-talk host who holds forth weekday evenings on KTRS (550 AM), backs the stadium but says he has "no pity" for owners, players or even fans. "Now it's just a game strictly for the rich boys and for the corporations," he says.
The increasing focus on off-field issues eventually defeats the purpose of sports, which, at its best, is a diversion from the drudgery of reality. "It's not like you talk about RBIs anymore; you don't talk about the rookies," says Hadley. "You talk about salaries, the salary cap; you talk about stadium issues, TV contracts. It seems like the media is covering everything but the sport itself. How often do you just sit down and have conversations about what happened in the game that night?"
With the Cardinals' campaign for a new ballpark, not even on opening day.