I love baseball. I have enjoyed watching it and devouring statistics and trivia about it since I was young. But lately baseball has transformed my boundless enjoyment into tough love.

Player salaries and ticket prices don’t make me hate the sport, as they do to some lesser baseball fans. I enjoy baseball too much to ever truly dislike it. But the continued skyrocketing prices of contracts and stadium seats have really bothered me like never before this offseason.

Today ESPN’s Peter Gammons is reporting that free agent Mark Teixeira could sign a contract worth something between $170 million and $200 million. This news comes on the heels of the always-overspending New York Yankees signing two pitchers, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, for a combined $243.5 million – $161 million over seven years for Sabathia and $82.5 million over six years for Burnett. Nevermind that Sabathia weighs about 300 pounds and isn’t going to get thinner as he gets older (making him a health risk), and Burnett is injury-prone and could be the next Carl Pavano (who pitched the Yankees to a grand total of nine victories during his four-year, $39.5 million contract) – what really irks me is that much money continues to be thrown around by certain major-league teams while those of us in the real world grapple with the realities of the worst economic downturn in America since the Great Depression.

Interestingly, the Associated Press reported this quote from Sabathia earlier this week: “With the economy being the way it is … the huge amount of money, it was, you know, pretty crazy. But that’s our game, I guess.”

Maybe that’s your game, CC. Mine was much more affordable. Back when I still lived in the Chicago suburbs, there was a stretch of several years when I annually attended 10-15 baseball games. Moving further away from Chicago resulted in me going to fewer major-league baseball games, not only because of the greater distance but also because ticket prices continued to increase practially every year as ticket availability (at least at Wrigley Field) lessened.

To some degree I filled that void by attending more minor-league baseball games, which are so much more affordable than their major-league counterparts. I expect minor-league games to be attended by more baseball fans in 2009 because of the affordability factor, which comes into play more than ever because of the bad recession. It doesn’t help Major League Baseball’s case when greedy big-market teams like the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs jack up their ticket prices during the recession, making their ballgames less accessible to average families and the next generation of potential baseball fans. It reminds me of when I stopped collecting baseball cards because a pack suddenly cost more than 50 cents. Youngsters were priced out of collecting baseball cards, but the card industry didn’t care as long it was making more money from richer collectors. The same later happened with comic books and concerts, and now it’s happening with sporting events. As long as the bottom line looks good to the people who control the industry, it doesn’t matter to them whether the average person can afford to keep up with something they once enjoyed.

I love baseball. But I would love it more if it acknowledged, in some way, that times are tough for average people like me, and that my support for the sport over the years matters. Is it too much to ask for baseball to love me back?

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