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Professional sports are getting too ugly

Like all dutiful sports fans, I am keeping an eye on the baseball season and the basketball playoffs, but the truth is, my heart isn't in it.

My hometown Knicks are playing at a championship level again, but my enthusiasm is heavily restrained. The Knicks are known as a team that lacks first-class personnel but makes up for it with physicality. This is a euphemism. It means that they beat up their opponents as much as they can. Every so often, when an opponent drives to the basket, the Knicks will just hammer him to the floor. Call it mugger basketball.

The pounding is accompanied by a good deal of "trash talk" _ venomous goading of opponents.

It didn't used to be this way. Many years ago during a Knicks-Bullets playoff game, one of the Bullets came up from behind the great Walt Frazier and punched him in the face. Strangely, the referee called a foul on Frazier. Frazier didn't complain. His expression never changed. He simply called for the ball and put in seven straight shots to win the game, an amazing display of productive anger. If you want to get huffy about it, it was a great moral lesson as well.

Nowadays, I suppose, Frazier would be expected to hit his opponent with a chair, or at least wait until the man was up in the air under the basket, and then deliver some sort of crippling blow. One of the lesser publicized skills in the league is how to hit an opponent so he falls in an awkward way, causing an injury.

As the game gets more explosive, it is starting to change the responses of the press and fans. During the Knicks-Bulls playoff series, New York tabloids referred to Chicago as "Hell," and fans heaped a great deal of abuse on Michael Jordan. What is this all about? Jordan is the greatest athlete of our era, the finest ever to play the game. If we are expected to abuse him because he happens to play for the team from Hell, count me out. I don't remember fans abusing Bird or Magic or Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell. They were great opponents, not enemies. But that was when pro basketball was still a game, not a war.

Baseball hasn't evolved into a war game yet, but it too makes me cringe when I open the sports pages. The tone of the game is increasing set by rich brats. A week ago Ken Griffey Jr., a big star with the Seattle Mariners, grabbed his crotch and shouted an obscenity at an opposing manager while running around the bases after a home run. (Thanks for sharing, Ken.) Bobby Bonilla, who signed for $29-million with the Mets, threatened to beat up a sportswriter. For some reason, he thought it was a good idea to make this threat on camera. And the biggest star in baseball, Barry Bonds, who signed with the Giants for $43-million, is also the game's biggest jerk. While watching a videotape of a Giants game, he said he was surprised to learn that he had run around the bases after a home run hoisting a particular finger to the crowd.

Baseball has always had its jerks, of course, but the big money now sloshing through baseball has made a difference. Stars are hard to restrain when they make 10 times as much money as their managers, the sportswriters who cover them and most of the fans who watch them. Arrogant stars and greedy owners are starting to squeeze the life out of baseball. Fay Vincent, the former commissioner, warned that the public may come to see the game as a clash between cheap billionaires and whiny millionaires.

Fan loyalty is hardly the only problem. Games are much too slow, partly because they're overly packed with between-innings TV commercials. Expansion has once again diluted the quality of the game. And I expect that the forthcoming playoff system will dump every halfway decent team into post-season play, making pennant races a joke and pushing the World Series into November.

Something about baseball isn't working any more. The vast commercialization of the game and the cold attitudes that come with it are turning people off. Who will explain this to owners and players?

Universal Press Syndicate