Time for baseball to cap its cracks

JOHN EISENBERG

January 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

You can safely say that pro football never would have settled its labor dilemma without baseball, which was the first sport to include free agency, the essential item at the core of the football agreement.

Now it's time for football to help baseball. The NFL agreement has several characteristics that baseball could borrow to help patch its faulty foundation.

One is the length of the contract, seven years. That's almost twice as long as any other sporting labor deal in recent memory, and guarantees that the NFL will proceed uninterrupted for the rest of the century without so much as a whisper about a work stoppage. Baseball, with its popularity ebbing, desperately needs to sign such a trust with its skeptical public.

There were legitimate reasons for the labor discord that pockmarked the recent history of sports, but lockouts, strikes and bluster have steadily corroded interest. Baseball fans in particular have grown tired of the constant threat that they couldn't "wait until next year" because there might not be a next year.

Those in baseball's labor war need to recognize that this fan disillusionment is central to the recent drops in attendance and television ratings.

A few owners seem to be grasping the concept; at the winter meetings, they made it much tougher to lock out the players. The next step would be to sign a labor deal enabling fans to invest their support unreservedly -- for more than just a couple of years at a time. The psychic healing would be more significant than imagined by anyone involved.

Another interesting tenet of the football deal is a salary cap, clearly a cornerstone of the future of pro sports. The NBA and now the NFL have it, and you can be sure that the NHL and its new NBA-trained commissioner will follow. That leaves baseball.

Of course, the circumstances are different in baseball, the only sport in which the players wouldn't want a cap limiting their salaries because the owners keep giving them more than they ever dreamed possible.

Is this sport a mess or what? The players' union has battered the owners for so long that limiting salaries would constitute a player "give-back."

The average baseball salary is more than a million dollars a year, and the owners constantly undermine their grumblings about the game being in trouble by showering players with increasingly larger contracts. Why should the players agree to a limit when there's apparently no limit to what owners are willing to pay?

But the players should not just blithely reject the idea of a cap. Their house is not in perfect order, either. In fact, it is debatable whether the union is doing right by all of its membership, even in this age of money growing on trees.

Every time a Barry Bonds or a Cal Ripken signs a headline-making deal, a half-dozen players are put in jeopardy of losing their jobs or getting hit with a management hardball. The ++ number is growing.

Consider the Orioles. It's not a coincidence that they signed Ripken for $30 million and cut loose Joe Orsulak and Randy Milligan, among others. Sure, the Orioles are vicious bottom-liners who easily could have afforded to pay all three, but as a basic business principle it holds that someone is going to pay every time a big stack of money is sent outbound.

As salaries soar and more players lose jobs, take pay cuts and change teams, the lack of continuity has contributed to fan indifference. Basically, the sport is out of control. A salary cap would represent at least a semblance of control.

No, the players shouldn't have to keep the witless owners from ruining the sport, but the truth is that, regardless of the angry rhetoric they trade, the players and owners are partners in an industry with billions coursing through it, and the industry is in a slump. They're basically just arguing over how to divide the profits, and seeing as the owners can't control themselves, the players had better help. A cap in baseball wouldn't be terribly limiting anyway; you know the union would see to that.

In any case, cooperation and compromise are needed at this point. Just as the two sides compromised in football, albeit with a judge's gun pointed at the owners' heads.

It won't be easy. Before anything can happen, the owners need to agree among themselves to share at least some of their local television revenue, so the Seattle Mariners can better compete with the Yankees. And there must be an agreement on how to handle arbitration, which prevents the owners from controlling salaries. But after that, a salary cap and a long-term labor deal would help restore stability, and popularity, to baseball.

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