More of less will save the national pastime

Jon Margolis

December 10, 1992|By Jon Margolis

SOMALIA, Bosnia, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin have bee challenged for space on Page 1 this week by a subject of RTC transcendent significance -- baseball.

Which is an accomplishment. A leisurely game in a fast-paced age, baseball seems to be losing favor, especially among the young. This is very foolish of the young, for it raises the possibility that they will grow old without baseball. Growing old is bad enough with baseball. Without it, aging would be truly unbearable. Unhappily, the people who are in charge of the solution are the ones who caused the problem, the owners of the ball clubs, who want us to think they are stewards of a national treasure instead of ordinary entrepreneurs.

That they are not; ordinary entrepreneurs pay for their own factories. The only hope is that the club owners are enlightened entrepreneurs, interested not only in maximizing next year's profits but also in sustaining long-term prosperity.

But if they were, they would not be on the verge of doing entirely the wrong thing. They are talking about more -- more divisions so that there will be more playoff games, hence a longer season; more commercials to pay all the bills, hence more games going late into the night.

Bad idea. What baseball needs is not more of anything. It needs less of everything. It should think small.

Baseball should be played between mid-April and mid-October even if this required an occasional double-header to fit in all the games. The typical game should take between 150 and 180 minutes. Yes, it's hard to speed up a game without a clock, but not at all hard to cease slowing it down, which is what is being done by squeezing in so many commercials that the between-inning intervals are longer than necessary.

With playoff and World Series games scheduled too late to begin with, these delays all but guarantee that some games will not end before midnight, long after children have been put to bed.

Children are not the targets of the car and beer companies who buy the commercials. They are, however, the fans of the future, or they would be if they could watch the World Series. If some of the games were in the daytime, kids could revive the tradition of sneaking radios into school, thereby creating personal memories associated with baseball, which is as much a folklore as a sport.

Now, one need not be a hardheaded business person to see that these suggestions double-headers, day games, fewer commercials -- all add up to less, specifically to less revenue. And what kind of a business person, hardheaded or not, wants less revenue?

Perhaps the kind who sees that (a) he's going to get less revenue anyway, because the networks are going to offer less; (b) less revenue now might well mean secure revenue into the indefinite future; and (c) less revenue is still plenty of revenue.

Or at least it would be if the costs were controlled. Here things get a bit sticky because anyone suggesting that costs (meaning salaries) be reduced risks sounding like a pawn of the owners in their continuing effort to destroy the players union and revive semi-serfdom.

Not necessarily. In baseball's labor disputes, the players have been right and the owners wrong -- if not 100 percent, at least 95. Still, the salaries are too high.

According to what standard? Is this not America, where a person worth what someone will pay him (or her)?

Yes, it is. But baseball salaries are too high according to this standard: They are so high that the average person can no longer identify with, much less feel affection for, the young millionaire beneficiaries, especially when those beneficiaries regularly flit from team to team for even higher pay. (Witness Paul Molitor's defection this week from Milwaukee, a city where he was as familiar as beer.) Because such identification and affection are necessary for the long-term prosperity of the business, the salaries are too high to sustain the business. They have to be a little lower so that they will exist at all in the future.

Besides, were the salaries cut in half, they would average $500,000 a year. That's enough for playing a game eight months a year. The average player's major-league career spans just four years. But four years at say, $250,000 each, is enough, even after taxes and a Mercedes or two, for a nest-egg sufficient to support a semi-decadent standard of living without requiring further effort.

Precisely how to arrange all this -- whether by salary cap or some other open-ledger, cost-sharing system -- can be left to the lawyers and agents, whose own fees may have to decline a bit. Poor things.

It is tempting to suggest that the folks who own the baseball clubs owe something to the general public, or at least to the tradition on which their profits are based. Fat chance. If only they felt that they owed something to themselves beyond the next profit-and-loss statement, they might save themselves and the tradition, and no one would have to grow old without baseball.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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