For the Love of the Sport

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As the country begins to re-open along with sports and sporting events, I am more and more grateful, than I already was, to be a fan of the NTT IndyCar Series. IndyCar was not the first sport back, but they didn’t need to be. That was more due to scheduling issues and logistics, just like this one-month layoff between the first and second races. That is no one’s fault. But with Richmond canceling and Road America wisely taking Toronto’s vacated date created a void after the Texas race.

But make no mistake, there was no one involved with the series that didn’t want to get back to work and go racing.

The same thing cannot be said for Major League Baseball (MLB). While other sports have either started back or at least made definitive plans to start back soon, MLB continues to squabble over prorated salaries, number of games and playoff structures – all at the expense of their dwindling fan base. As it stands right now baseball playing a single game in 2020 looks iffy, at best.

I used to be a big baseball fan. It was never ahead of racing or football, but I was still a big fan. There was hardly a day in the baseball season when I couldn’t tell you who was leading each division and by how many games over the other contenders. I stuck with them during the strike of 1981, when they ended up with a split-season that had curious guests to the post-season. But when the labor strike of 1994 came and they lost the World Series, that’s when they lost me. I didn’t purposely boycott baseball, but when they finally came back in the spring of 1995; my enthusiasm for the game didn’t come back with them. I simply found myself losing interest to the point that I no longer kept up with the standings and I would rarely even watch a random game anymore. One would think that baseball learned from this.

Baseball and motor racing share a lot of similarities. Both fan bases are getting older and smaller, both import a lot of their talent from foreign countries and both are staring at a future where few young people care much about them.

But what is the biggest differences between the two sports? The ownership, the leadership and even some of the athletes.

You see, MLB has shown its true colors during this time of trying to come back from the pandemic. They have proven what many have suspected for a long time; that neither side – the owners or the players – give a hoot about the game, or it’s fans. Both sides are ruled by greed.

This does come back around to racing, so bear with me.

Baseball has been around since the 1800s. I see the players and the owners as stewards of a great game. Yes, they may profit from it, but everyone gets involved with baseball through the love of the game – or so I thought in such a naïve way. I now see that most baseball owners couldn’t care less about the game itself and they certainly don’t see themselves in a custodial role for the game. They see owning a team as an investment, plain and simple. They don’t seem to care about the players, and they sure don’t care about the fans.

The players are just as guilty, which may be even worse. When they were first learning to play baseball as kids, they weren’t doing it for multi-million dollar contracts. They fell in love with the games as kids. Even as high school, college and minor league players – they put up with the grueling hours of long bus trips and iffy accommodations, simply because they loved the game of baseball.

Even for those fortunate few that got the call to the big leagues, I like to think that their first thought was not how much money they were going to be making. Instead, I tell myself that the thrill of playing in a major league ball park was enough of a thrill to last a lifetime.

But somewhere along the way, the players became selfish and greedy. They lost their way and sold out to a higher power – the almighty dollar. When Tampa Bay Rays pitcher, Blake Snell, was asked about coming back after such a long layoff, his classic response was “Y’all gotta understand, man, for me to go, for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof, it’s a shorter season, less pay.I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, okay? And that’s just the way it is for me. Like, I’m sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower, why would I think about doing that? Like you know, I’m just, I’m sorry.” Nice. That pretty well sums it up.

Say what you will about Pete Rose, and most of it would be deserved. But he loved the game of baseball and probably would’ve played the game for free – he loved it that much. His detractors would be justified to ask if he loved it so much, why did he do so much to undermine the integrity of the game? Well, that’s another argument for another day. But when it comes to pure love for playing baseball, no one can dispute Charlie Hustle’s love of the game.

Blake Snell does not impress me as someone who loves the game of baseball. Unfortunately, I think his mindset has become the norm and not the exception among players. When you have players out to get as much money as they can and owners who don’t give a hoot about anything other than making as much money as possible – you end up with two sides who are more interested in winning their battle than they are for doing what is best for the game.

When forty million people are suddenly out of work and unemployment is sitting between 13-14%, fans don’t want to hear about millionaires squabbling with billionaires. They just want to know when they are going to start to play ball. Whatever fan base they had in the last twenty-six years is getting angrier by the day. You would have thought baseball learned from the strike of 1994. Think again. History just repeats itself. Most of today’s owners were not owners back then and many players had not even been born yet.

You can go up and down the IndyCar paddock and find a fairly wide spectrum of car owners. They have different styles of ownership and management, they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and they certainly have different size budgets. But what is the one thing that each of them share? That’s easy – Passion for the sport.

From Roger Penske to Chip Ganassi to Sam Schmidt to Dale Coyne – they are all extremely passionate about the sport of IndyCar racing, and it shows.

Do you think the June 6 trip to Texas was good for Dale Coyne;s bottom line? Probably not, although it did help fulfill sponsorship requirements. Something tells me that most, if not all, of the owners probably took a financial bath on running at Texas. Roger Penske and track president Eddie Gossage probably came to a compromise that was painful to both, just to pull this off – for the fans and for the good of the sport. Not only did all involved suck it up, they did it without complaining. They knew that the sport needed to get back to work and let the drivers do what they do best. Racers race.

Can you imagine the turmoil in the paddock if the owners and the drivers were squabbling over prorated salaries? Can you imagine the outcry from fans? If people felt cheated because they raced with no fans in the stands or they were shortchanged because the race was not exciting – imagine the outcry if squabbles between drivers and owners prevented the race from happening. Fans would be outraged and they would have been justified.

So as we lament that there is not another IndyCar race for another three and a half weeks, and that we don’t care for the new looks of the car; just remember this – we have racing. Once the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis runs over the Fourth of July weekend, we are going to have races on a very regular basis with this compressed schedule. That’s because the drivers and the owners love IndyCar racing and will never let anything stand in the way of that passion for the sport.

And there is one more thing to remember, the sport is now headed by Roger Penske. When IMS changed hands from the Hulman-George family to Penske, what word did Tony George keep using to describe Penske’s new role? It wasn’t owner, it was steward. That’s why he sold it to Penske, because he knew Penske would treat the property as hallowed ground, more than just an investment. I think you could describe every IndyCar car owner as having that much love for their sport. If only the same words could be used to describe baseball’s ownership.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “For the Love of the Sport”

  1. George, I think you meant 40 MILLION people out of work, not 40 thousand.

    You also wrote “what word did Tony George keep using to describe Penske’s new role? It was owner, it was steward.“ I think you meant “(I)t was NOT owner….”

    Can’t stand baseball, or basketball, or golf, or tennis and am probably through with the NFL with their disrespect of our societal norms. Can’t stand NASCAR or F1, so Sprint Cars and Indy Cars are all I have left!

  2. scott kenney Says:

    The Cubs Javi Baez said “Ready. Tell us when and where”

  3. Good essay. MLB, NBA, NFL deal with Billions of dollars each year. Each party involved, owners, participants,sponsors,advertisers and the media each want their “fair share” of the money pie. I am afraid the passion for the game ended in high school for most of the participants. I have long ago given up interest in MLB, NBA and I am very close giving up on the NFL due to the infusion of politics .

    I like to think of IndyCar as sophisticated and professional. However they unfortunately look like amateurs compared to the big three , and even take a back seat to NASCAR.

    I love INDYCAR. I feel the participants in IndyCar have an enormous passion for the sport otherwise why would they invest their time and treasure in an under appreciated sport. I have to believe most team owners could have made a lot more return on their investments in some other businesses. They do it because of the passion and I am thankful that they do. Why else would a driver risk life and limb climbing into the cockpit if not for the passion for racing.

    I also follow F1 , IMSA and even attend the SCCA Runoffs when possible( Mid Ohio & IMS).

    Sorry for the rambling response just wanted to get it off my chest

  4. I chuckle how baseball is always trying to find ways to shorten the length of their games. They think it will make the games more accessible or exciting to fans.

    The average baseball game only lasts about 10 to 15 minutes longer than an NFL game. Length of game isn’t the problem.

    Quality of game is. Sabermetrics killed the sport. It’s all about launch angles and analytics now. Swing for a home run or strike out. Gone are base stealing, bunting, suicide squeezes, sacrifices. Guys don’t even understand how to close their batting stance to hit a ball to opposite field anymore. That would put an end to the dreaded defensive shift. The game has no movement anymore. That’s why it’s boring. That’s why young people don’t tune in. That’s why those of us in our 40s, 50s, and up are tuning out. We remember a better product.

    Ok, time to exit my soapbox and go eat a late breakfast.

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