Note: This column appeared in the Boston Globe March 21, 1984.
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - I will watch another pleasant corner snipped off the fabric of daily living tonight.
The trip will be to Lakeland, where the Boston Red Sox will play a 7:30 exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. I will watch the new announcers in the booth, the new producer in the truck, the new economic look to an old, familiar show.
Pay-cable television will begin for the Red Sox with this game and I will kick the Florida ground at the very idea.
“What don’t you like about it?” a Red Sox official asked. “Just about every team in baseball has some sort of pay cable going now. We’re late. Don’t single us out. Everyone has it.”
OK, everyone has it, but everyone hasn’t been rolling into my home for the past skatey-eight seasons for free. The Red Sox have. OK, the Celtics are on pay cable and the Bruins will be part of this system and, OK, I hate what all of them are doing.
I also hate what the Red Sox are doing.
It is as if there suddenly is a charge for air. Or sunshine. Or the time of day. A product that has been used and enjoyed for a lifetime suddenly will cost money. A flock of entrepreneurs finally have figured out how to make Sunday afternoon cost $5 per person.
There might be a gloss, a packaging, to the production - new announcers, added games to the televised schedule, all sorts of marketing hoo-ha - but basically what was free a year ago now will cost money. Somehow this does not resemble a bargain to me.
“You’ll get 90 games from us, 60-something games from free television,” a cable person said yesterday. “You’ll be able to see the entire season, minus four or five games. You’ve never been able to do that in the past.”
“I saw 100 games last year,” I said.
“Well, you’ll be able to see more this year,” the cable person said. “Look at this as an enrichment.”
It is an enrichment I do not need. We do not need. Nobody needs . . . except the entrepreneurs, the owners, and the agents and tax accountants for the ballplayers, who will have to figure out what to do with even more money.
“This will be better for you,” the salesmen of every repackaged, repriced old product always say.
“This will be more expensive for me,” we always reply, adding up the numbers one more time. “How can this be better?”
“Believe us,” the salesmen say.
“OK,” we reply, going to the checkbook.
A lot of people here laugh at the comic opera beginnings of this enterprise. The Boston area cable companies have not been quick to add this service to their operation. This broadcast - which will be free, as an introductory look - might not be seen by as many as 10,000 homes. The announcers might be speaking into tin cans with a string going to nowhere.
I do not laugh.
I look at the Red Sox schedule and see the games that will be broadcast by this group, this New England Sports Network. I see a road trip in June, three straight games in New York against the Yankees. I see two of three against the World Champion Baltimore Orioles, then two of the next four. I see three out of five games in the first week of the season, six out of seven during the final week.
Funny? Funny now, perhaps, but have your money ready if there ever is a pennant race. Laugh in the third week of March, but struggle for your wallet in the third week of August when you’re locked into an air-conditioned room and bored with a 15th straight game of Parcheesi and the Sox are in Kansas City and you want to see if Wade Boggs or George Brett is going to hit .400.
This is the most serious issue of this spring training. Baseball is going to cost money this time around.
“How much?” I asked a half-dozen different people.
Nobody seemed to know, because most of the cable systems weren’t offering the service yet. Each system could package it differently. Ten dollars a month seemed to be a low guess. Fifteen or 16 was a high.
“And once you’re on the hook,” one sportswriter suggested, “the price can always jump.”
“How about this?” I suggested. “They show the game until the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox are down a run, but the bases are loaded and Jim Rice is at the plate. He steps out of the box and a message is flashed across the screen - Please Insert One Dollar To See Finish Of This Game.’ You’ll be diving for the set.”
An only consolation is that one of the first big pay-cable promotions took place last year in Chicago. The White Sox hired Ken Harrelson - remember him? - and Don Drysdale and put most of their games on the pay service. The team had a tremendous season, finishing in the playoffs.
I went to Comiskey Park for those playoff games, expecting to find pandemonium from a crowd that hadn’t had a winner in decades. The crowd reaction was reserved.
“Why’s this?” I asked.
“Nobody knows this team,” I was told. “If you don’t buy the cable, you don’t see the games. People can’t develop a passion for a team of players they’ve never watched.”
I would only hope the customer resistance will be as strong in New England. If nobody buys, the product can’t be sold. If the product isn’t sold . . . the one or two or three years spent in boycott would be worth the return of the free games.
For tonight, simply remember that the grass at Joker Marchant Stadium will be green. The Red Sox will be in their gray traveling uniforms with “BOSTON” across the front. The Tigers will be in white. Remember that the game is baseball, the same game you’ve been watching for all these years.
Remember, because memory is all you’ll have for a while if you don’t have bucks. This is the night the free lunch ends.