War is too important to be left to the generals, French Premier Georges Clemenceau once said. Is it time to wonder whether baseball is too important to be left to its owners?
Viewed even through friendly eyes, the national pastime is in disarray. Whether it's the kind of commissioner they want, how to negotiate with the players union or individual free agents, disciplining Cincinnati owner Marge Shott for racist comments, the owners seem not to know where they're heading. Attendance is slumping and TV revenues, life-blood of their treasuries, are about to tumble.
As if that wasn't enough, some in Congress are again asking pointed questions about baseball's exemption from anti-trust laws. No other major sport has it. The Supreme Court, which granted the immunity in 1922 on sentimental grounds, has virtually conceded that the ruling was wrong. But it passes the buck to Congress to undo its error.
The problem is that baseball is no longer just a sport -- it is a multi-billion-dollar business. In several respects it is not a very well-run business. While some organizations, like the Orioles, are doing well financially, others are struggling. Revenue from a lucrative TV contract has kept some of the weaker clubs afloat, but it expires after next season. The new one will not be as profitable, forcing owners to rely more heavily on their own fans and TV markets. Great for the New York Yankees, not so great for the Seattle Mariners or Milwaukee Brewers. Baseball does not do as good a job as the National Basketball Association, for example, in marketing itself and spinoffs.
Noise from Capitol Hill over anti-trust exemption could fall off, as it has consistently in the past. The anti-trust exemption is not all bad, as Marylanders should be aware. It was the lack of control by the National Football League that permitted Robert Irsay to sneak the Colts out of Baltimore. But baseball has also undermined the office of the commissioner by the way it fired Fay Vincent as commissioner. The owners' behavior since then doesn't instill confidence they can maintain the sport in the hearts of its fans without outside pressure -- if not from the commissioner's office, then it could come from a meddlesome Congress.