Falling Stars 

What do Tom Cruise and Barry Bonds have in common? Not prescription drugs, that's for sure. Let Cruise in the Giant clubhouse, and within minutes he'd be jumping up and down on Barry's recliner, ranting about the evils of ibuprofen and flaxseed oil.

For those of you who don't follow the headlines beyond the sports page, Cruise has been kicked off the Paramount lot by the company chairman Sumner Redstone. Cruise, the most bankable movie star of the past decade, perhaps two, was considered too loony even by Hollywood standards.

At least that's Redstone's story: Cruise's antics on Oprah (see: couch-jumping) and Scientology-fueled rants against prescription drugs were damaging his street cred and hurting his box-office draw. So, goodbye Tom: Paramount is severing ties with his production company.

It's not really about the antics. Many see Redstone's gambit as a way to start dismantling the star system, in which a few holier-than-holies call the shots, make multi-millions per picture, and force a studio to make ever-larger budget bets.

Does the complaint sound familiar?

Substitute any one of many baseball owners for Sumner Redstone, but let's use Florida owner Jeffrey Loria as our example. Loria just gave a vote of confidence to his front office but conspicuously avoided praise for his popular manager Joe Girardi. Combine that with the Marlins' faceless rookie roster and rock-bottom $14 million payroll, and we can see how the Marlins, as they make a run at the National League wild card spot, have become the poster child for baseball's move away from the star system.

Not all teams are making the move, obviously. The Yankees and Red Sox continue to pile up the $10 Million Dollar Men. The Mets are a runaway success this year by spending on stars. But keep your eyes peeled for more indications that teams won't be beholden to high-salary, high-maintenance performers.

A big test case will be right here in San Francisco, where Barry Bonds has been the Tom Cruise of the major leagues for 15 years. Love him, hate him, whisper about him, worship him, it doesn't matter. You're coming to see him. He's still a huge draw despite his weirdo factor and his declining skills; unlike Cruise he's going downhill pretty fast. He may be hot right now, with home runs in three straight games, but it's plain that Barry has at most one more year in him. Cruise presumably has a lot of movies, if not missions impossible, yet to carry.

Peter Magowan hasn't kicked Bonds off the lot -- though much of his entourage are finally personas non gratas -- but we'll see what happens if Barry wants to come back to S.F. for another year. If the Giants refuse, will they Redstone him by tossing all his baggage on the table, or will they take the high road? They didn't when Dusty Baker left; someone tried to discredit Dusty by leaking the fact he was under I.R.S. investigation.

More important, will the Giants abandon the star system entirely when Bonds is gone? Young pitching will be the cornerstone of the next few years, but will the Giants be seduced into signing a marketable hitting star to put butts in the seats?

Past examples show that big stars don't necessarily equal winning teams: witness A-Rod's tenure with Texas. Winning teams, not fancy names, are the biggest draw...or are they? Around here, that might not be the case. The A's attendance record shows that Bay Area fans can be hard to convince. Whine about the difference in stadia all you want, but there's no excuse for Oakland fans' pathetic record: 23,000 a game this year, good for 26th in baseball. They haven't cracked 30,000 a game this decade, with perhaps the most fun, competitive, exciting team in either league.

Giants attendance is creeping southward but not dramatically. Barry's baggage hasn't put off many fans; in fact, we've taken a perverse pleasure in cheering on the man everyone else loves to hate. The ability of the Giants to draw 35,000 a game even in the doldrums, without their marquee star for most of 2005, may convince the Giants brass that the stadium itself is enough; that when Barry takes his leather recliner home once and for all to try to re-up the star power for star-power's-sake would be foolish.

But they may have no choice. The next two years, division rivals Arizona, Colorado even L.A. will have an infusion of excellent young talent. Some of these players have already established themselves in starting lineups -- Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier, Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsley, Jeff Francis, Garrett Atkins, and so on. There are more on the way.

Other than their pitching, the Giants have little else. Their position players under contract for next year are a 40-year-old shortstop, an addle-brained catcher, and the thoroughly mediocre Randy Winn. "Let the kids play!" is a common refrain when an aging team can't crack .500, but how many of you remember 1996? Thanks to Matty Williams's broken foot, it was Barry Bonds and a bunch of kids. Bill Mueller emerged as a viable starter, but it was a long, foggy summer full of Desi Wilson and Steve Scarsone. Rich Aurilia got playing time, too -- and was terrible. Long-term, it helped the team -- it certainly proved to Brian Sabean that several useful parts are better than one expensive oft-injured slugger -- but it wasn't easy to watch.

Rebuilding in this fickle market is not a job I would crave, I admit I'm looking forward to watching Brian Sabean go about it, as his perplexing moves of the last three years have not yet drawn down the reserve of goodwill he accumulated from 1997 to 2003. Color me pollyanna, but I still hold out hope he can turn the team around faster than a feckless team owner could say, "If it's Tuesday, I must be moving the team to San Antonio."


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