Take These Sox And Shove It

There's not much cheering at Fenway Park these days. The Boston Red Sox are playing so badly that the team's manager recently apologized to the fans. But the playing field isn't the only place where the Sox are slumping: sales of the official team program are heading south. The problem is 28-year-old Michael Rutstein, a publishing tyro who is knocking the cover off the ball by offering an alternative to the traditional, Sox-sponsored booklet.

Called "Boston Baseball Underground," Rutstein's 48-page publication improves on the official Red Sox program by providing up-to-date stats and no-holds-barred articles about players. It is distributed on streets around Fenway Park. "Underground" sells for $1--half the cost of the program sold inside the park--and Rutstein throws in a pencil (the Sox charge 25 cents). He sells about 2,000 programs a game--nearly as many as the Sox do--and hopes to one day expand his business to other major-league cities.

Not, however, if the Red Sox have anything to say about it. With player salaries soaring and seating limited, concessions like programs, beer and hot dogs are almost as important as paying fans; Fenway takes in an estimated $400 000 a year on program sales, not including ad revenues. Spokesman Richard Bresciani says the organization is concerned because "Underground" has been eating into sales, and "we've had complaints from dozens of fans who were misled into believing they were buying the Red Sox official program." To move Rutstein out, the Sox have teamed up with city hall. Their first pitch: threats of criminal charges for violating the city's vending codes. They've brought in Richard Iannella, the city's director of code enforcement, to file a grievance. Explains Iannella: "The Red Sox have made some complaints . . . and they're big taxpayers."

It was never Rutstein's intent to bury the Red Sox' publication. "I just wanted to read a better program," says the baseball junkie, who is also a University of Iowa Writer's Workshop graduate. "The official program doesn't change for two months at a time." So three years ago, with a computer and $10,000 in savings, Rutstein stepped into the batter's box. He gave away his first issue. Today he has advertisers, subscribers, newsstand sales-and profits.

To bench Rutstein, the city is doing an about-face. Three years ago, both city hall and the police told Rutstein his publication, like all magazines, was exempt from vending ordinances under the First Amendment. Now Iannella claims that's not so: the scorecard, he says, makes " Baseball Underground" a product, not a magazine. He's hoping to make his point next week before a judge. While the publicity from the skirmish is boosting sales, Rutstein will need all the help he can get to stay in business. " I'm lucky my mom is a lawyer," he says.

Even if they shut out Rutstein, the Red Sox may have bobbled the ball with some longtime fans. "I was pretty disgusted to see the Red Sox trying to put this guy out of business, with all the millions they make," says Mike Cranston. Judging by its sales this year, "Baseball Underground" has dug out a niche among serious baseball folks. If Rutstein is forced out of the game, his fans will surely yell foul. After all, how much disappointment can they take from one team?