Seasons' reasons for a collective sigh

JOHN EISENBERG

December 09, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

It would seem that the theme of the sporting week here in Bawlmer, hon, is as follows: A Reason to Cheer, Maybe.

(We're obviously not talking about the winter meetings scoreboard that has the Blue Jays adding Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart and re-signing Joe Carter, and the Orioles adding Sherman Obando, which says all you need to know about which team wants to do it right. But we're talking about Bigger Things today.)

It all started when two pieces of apparently promising news broke within hours the other day. We were told it's unlikely there will be a baseball lockout next spring. We were told there may be reason to get excited again about the NFL expanding to Baltimore by 1995. Good news times two, or so it seemed. But should you believe what you're hearing?

Yes and no. Maybe.

Here is yours truly's official handicapping guide: A lockout-less season is indeed a virtual certainty. Impending NFL expansion is considerably less so.

The football bees started buzzing again when Paul Tagliabue said at halftime Monday night that the players and owners had reached a "preliminary agreement that is a framework" on a collective bargaining agreement. The lack of such supposedly was preventing expansion to two of the five cities hungry for franchises, Baltimore among them.

Well, it turns out the players don't exactly share Tagliabue's rosy analysis of their negotiations. They said yesterday that, while it was true they had been talking seriously, there was no agreement or anything resembling an agreement.

And, anyway, remember that Baltimore still has to compete for a team even if the players and owners do sign an agreement. It looked like a lock this summer, but it's no longer so now that the people in Charlotte have had time to sand some of the bumps on their proposal.

An optimist would note that, regardless if Tagliabue is right or wrong, it's positive that he felt confident enough about the negotiations to put his credibility on the line. But a skeptic would wonder if a league that hasn't expanded since 1977 isn't always going to find a reason to postpone.

(Yours truly's official handicapping guide, Part 2: It is encouraging that the owners, after months of getting pounded in court, apparently have realized they need to give in on free agency, which baseball and basketball already have. But only after having witnessed the opening kickoff will it be wise to believe there will be a pro football team in Baltimore.)

Baseball's newest labor developments are easier to define. It originally sounded like bad news when the owners voted to reopen their agreement with the players, making it possible for them to lock out the players next spring. But then came the good news: It will now take a yea from 21 of the 28 owners, instead of a majority, to shut down play. That virtually guarantees there will be no interruptions next year. You can't get 21 of these owners to agree on whether the grass is green.

It would be nice to report that they essentially chose to protect themselves from themselves because they realized that they couldn't afford another public-relations mess after a season in which attendance declined for 18 of 26 teams. It would be nice to report that they finally realized they couldn't bully the players until they got their own divided and very chaotic house in order.

But the truth is that a lockout extending into the regular season was going to cost too many owners too much money, which meant bye-bye to the whole concept. The Orioles and their soon-to-be-sold-out house, for instance, would have lost a fortune that could have been reinvested in free agents. (Just kidding.) The teams drawing the big crowds stood to lose a lot.

In any case, the resulting news was certainly a reason to cheer. Now, only one season, not two, stands to be interrupted.

No, it wouldn't be a shock if the owners still got huffy about something and padlocked the gates. Never underestimate the collective stupidity of the baseball owners. But it probably won't happen.

Of course, the 1994 season will be in big trouble if the owners and players are still haggling. It's a certified cause for concern. The owners are in bad shape. They cry poverty and spend millions. They cry about the unfairness of free agency, and small-market teams keep winning.

What can they do? Some form of revenue sharing would help, but can you blame the Yankees for not wanting to share their TV fortune with the Mariners? The players would never go for a salary cap.

It's a mess, but anyway, at least now it appears to be next year's mess. And a wise man once said that you always have to score your victories, large or small.

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