In a perfect world, baseball would trade imperfect realities

BASEBALL

December 06, 1992|By PETER SCHMUCK

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In case anyone hasn't noticed, this is not a perfect world. There usually is a gap between the way things are and the way things should be, and that is certainly true of baseball's winter meetings.

Representatives of all 28 major-league teams have converged on the Galt House Hotel for a week of meetings, trade talks and free-agent negotiations. The annual winter convention also includes a full complement of minor-league activities, but that just takes us back to the fact that this is not a perfect world.

This is supposed to be a trading festival, but it isn't. It is supposed to be the nerve center of off-season baseball activity, but most of the business can be handled by conference call. It was once heaven in a hotel for professional baseball junkies like Roland Hemond, but it just isn't the same anymore.

The winter meetings have become a place where player agents go to peddle their wares and owners go to air their dirty laundry . . . or so it seems. But that doesn't mean we can't dream of a happier time and a baseball world that is a little closer to the perfect pastime everyone would like it to be.

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In a perfect world: The free-agent market would be open from the first day after the World Series until the first day of the winter meetings. That way, rosters would be set and general managers could go about their usual business of creating trade rumors and declining to comment on them. If that isn't enough time to get 150 free agents signed, maybe it's time to move the winter meetings into January where they belong.

In the real world: There are so many free agents this winter that one team -- the Oakland Athletics -- couldn't put together a nine-man starting lineup of the major-league players who were still under contract at the end of the 1992 season. By the time teams are required to tender contracts Dec. 20, it is conceivable that 35 percent of the major-league players with at least three years of service will be free agents. Look for general managers to wait until then to make most of their player personnel decisions.

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In a perfect world: Baseball owners would always be benevolent and enlightened, so there would be no need for an investigation to find out if one of them used offensive language to describe blacks and Jews.

In the real world: There is at least one baseball owner who treats her dog better than her employees and keeps a swastika armband around the house as a party favor. The hot question this week is whether Marge "Hitler was good in the beginning . . ." Schott can keep her baseball team.

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In a perfect world: The long-suffering baseball fans of the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., area would be lining up to buy tickets to see the Tampa Bay Giants play their first season in the Suncoast Dome.

In the real world: Baseball owners this week will rubber-stamp the sale of the Giants to a San Francisco group that didn't enter the picture until after Bob Lurie agreed to sell the team to investors from Florida. Meanwhile, the people of Tampa/St. Pete are finding that building a stadium before they got a baseball team may actually have hurt their chances of getting one, since their advanced stage of readiness has made them the perfect stooge for every team looking to leverage the locals into a new lease or a new ball park.

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In a perfect world: Star players with close ties to the communities in which they play would never slip out of town and sell themselves to the highest bidder.

In the real world: Some of them actually didn't this year. Cal Ripken avoided free agency by signing a five-year, $30.5 million contract in August; Kirby Puckett just signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Minnesota Twins; and Robin Yount just signed a one-year contract (with an option for 1994) to remain with the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, you also have to give credit to club officials in all three cities for recognizing the value of those players and spending the money to make sure they didn't get away.

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In a perfect world: There would be no need for a Major League Baseball Players Association. The players would play for the love of the game and a few hundred thou a year. The owners would hold down ticket prices and still make enough money to collect anything anyone could want. Television revenues would continue rise, building a giant pension fund for the players and keeping management financially secure in perpetuity.

In the real world: The players union is bracing for the possibility that the owners will vote tomorrow to reopen the collective bargaining agreement. The owners want revenue sharing and a salary cap to hold down payroll expenditures. The players don't want anything more than the right to continue making an average salary that has pushed past $1 million per year. If the owners reopen, there is a strong likelihood that they will lock the players out of spring training and shut down the game until they get the concessions they desire.

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