Like baseball? Avoid Fenway

Originally published July 28, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

Boston owns an undeserved reputation as a city ­­ a region, actually ­­ that has the most knowledgeable and sophisticated baseball fans in America. This accolade may have been accurate until the fall of 1986, when one man’s human error created a deep wave of self­pity that has unfairly remained a threat to true appreciation of the game.

Oh, it wasn’t just the ball between Buckner’s legs that altered things. The fact that the sport today is actually dominated by arrogant union leaders and greedy player agents rather than athletic ability or individual achievement sure hasn’t made baseball more popular; and the increasingly negative, cynical tone of daily life hasn’t helped either.

Still, it’s disappointing to see and hear so many supposedly sophisticated spectators appear like absolute morons gathered in a convention of foolishness at Fenway. They assembled this past weekend to boo Maurice Vaughn, the Boston first baseman, who has simply gone out of his way to articulate a fact that is obvious to even the most hideously ignorant among us: The game is a business, has been a business for some time, and will, unfortunately, remain a business forever. This does not mean Mo is a bad guy.

Money dominates. Profits take precedence over RBIs and earned run statistics. Loyalty and sentiment went out the locker room door long ago. Today’s player is more likely to discuss deferred payments than a pennant race or the pursuit of Roger Maris’s record. They live and play a child’s game in a catered existence where the average salary exceeds a million dollars, making it possible for them to exist from April through October as guaranteed winners no matter what happens between the lines.

You’d think New Englanders would have figured this out. You’d think more of us would know that Mo Vaughn and the Olde Towne Team are just in the eighth inning of the same inevitable end game that has seen a Clemens, a Molitor, a Piazza, and hundreds of others change uniforms. It’s a business.

To witness baseball performed on the big stage as it was and as it will never be again, you have to get up early on a Sunday and go to a place like Danehy Field in Cambridge to watch Little Leaguers try to outrun their dreams. There, you would have seen a family from Reading arrive with a handicapped child, strapped into a chair and wheeled into the shade alongside the aluminum bleachers so other parents, and players, too, could talk to her about the unchanging pleasure of an activity not yet ruined by cash.

Then, you could have crossed the river to view Pedro Martinez dominate the Blue Jays. He is a smart, wealthy young man with a huge heart, great talent, and a rapidly growing aversion to the absurd stupidity increasingly displayed by local fans.

And if your affection for the game was old enough you could have concluded a Sunday watching Hyannis play Wareham beneath a sweet sunset in the Cape League. There, running sprints in the mellow evening, Greg Montalbano worked up a sweat before he and his teammates boarded a bus for the trip back across the canal following a victory for his first­place club.

Montalbano is a 20 ­year ­old left­hander from Westborough who attends Northeastern, where he’s majoring in civil engineering. He is a big, handsome kid with blue eyes and dark hair and this summer he is 1 and 1 for “The Gatemen,” appearing in 24 innings in between visits to MRI facilities and doctor’s offices where he is treated for a cancer that has caused him to have five operations over the past two years.

“I was 18 when I found out I had it,” Montalbano was saying Sunday night. “I had just started at Northeastern. All I was thinking about was baseball and how to take care of the cancer, how to get rid of it.”

He was talking now about tumors that have moved to his hip and his lungs, how they would be treated, how he had to go in for blood work and another MRI, talking about all this in a calm, understated voice that contained the indefatigable confidence of youth. He is only 20, playing a game that is the love of his life, and he is living proof that, today, baseball is more enjoyable far from foolish fans and meaningless amounts of money.