'Money for Nothing': Is it game's new anthem?

January 24, 1993|By Bill Conlin | Bill Conlin,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Middle of the seventh inning at the old ballgame and everybody is up stretching to the ageless lilt of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

It's as American as mom, apple pie and drive-by shootings.

But that's in the good, old summertime.

The pastime reached the seventh inning of the off-season this week, marking the occasion with media luncheons, setting out for the hinterlands with messages of hope amid the final filings in a pernicious process called Salary Arbitration.

So what appropriate anthem should we clap our hands to as we stand and stretch and wait to see whether Atlanta reliever Kent ** Mercker (3-2, 3.42 ERA, 68 1/3 innings pitched) will be awarded the $825,000 he wants after all that middle-relief work or the Braves' figure of $600,000? The history of this blight on the increasingly pinched face of the free-enterprise system suggests that Mercker will settle before his hearing for $725,000.

Whatever, the left-hander will report to spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., with a high luster on his cheeks. Last season, his Braves salary was $190,000. Offer me $190,000 and I'll give you a lot more than 68 1/3 innings.

How about five columns a week, lawn service and I'll maintain your swimming pool if you have one.

So, the music for the seventh-inning stretch of baseball's off-season should be Dire Straits performing "Money for Nothing." Except in Cincinnati, of course, where Marge Schott might be more comfortable with Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe."

I've wracked my brain trying to think of a real-world institution that began with good intentions and imploded into a more total disaster than baseball's salary arbitration has been for the owners who insisted on it.

The only thing that comes close is federal deregulation of the airlines, in which everybody -- management, labor and the flying public -- has been a big-time loser.

But 1993 might be the final monument to years of mismatches between Marvin Miller, the labor genius who turned the Major League Baseball Players Association into the richest men's club this side of Augusta National, and the ineffectively led owners. Their main man was John Gaherin, a New York labor lawyer. Shouldn't Walter O'Malley, Augie Busch and the rest of the barons have been a little suspicious of their hired gun? Gaherin was the guy who took on the unions as chief negotiator for the New York Newspaper Publishers Association.

Of Gaherin, New York Daily News baseball writer Dick Young cracked, "Good thing baseball isn't a New York newspaper, it would have folded."

By the time Miller was through with the Gaherin and the owners, the rank and file were driving Porsches to work, carrying their hip flasks in Gucci attache cases and sneezing into silk handkerchiefs.

So, this arbitration Class of '93 might be the last. The free-agent market is glutted with a record number of overcompensated underachievers, players released just to keep them from wielding their arbitration blackjack. The daily transactions list is awash with major-league players signing minor-league contracts just for the privilege of coming to spring training and competing for a job.

Don Fehr, who took over the MLBPA when Miller retired, is too sharp to ignore the obvious trend toward some sort of salary cap.

Some form of one will come out of the reopened negotiations on a basic agreement that runs out next year. There will be no strike or lockout of the '93 season. Even the lowest forms of animal species knows when they are severely wounded. Make no mistake . . . baseball has been shot at and hit, its credibility tattered by its own greed and its profitability threatened by the harsh realities of a changing economic landscape.

And the pastime took another giant step in the direction of total anarchy last week when deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg, the last link to the overthrown leadership of Fay Vincent and six prior czars, resigned after months of isolation in his New York office.

The Mickey Mice, led by Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, are in complete out-of-control. Just don't ask them what it is they are out-of-control of, whom they report to, and what their committee has accomplished lately.

So, a little fanfare, please, and we'll salute the top five arbitration frauds of the Class of '93:

1. Gregg Jefferies, Kansas City Royals. For showing signs he can be a poor-to-average ballplayer instead of the total poof he was with the New York Mets, the man who helped fire Davey Johnson, wants a raise from $1.15 million to $3 million. The Royals, undazzled by his .285 average, 10 homers and 75 RBI while committing 26 errors at third base, submitted a salary offer of $1.85 million, a $1.15 million difference of opinion.

2. Jim Abbott, New York Yankees. Nobody admires Jim's physical courage more than me, but . . . When a guy wants a raise from $1.85 million to $3.5 million, shouldn't he have a stronger case than a 7-15 record? Don't sell me his 2.77 ERA. The guy pitched only 211 innings. George Steinbrenner is

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