Covering the field, from players to managers to money to baseball's future

April 04, 1993|By Neal Lipschutz

COMING APART AT THE SEAMS. Jack Sands and Peter Gammons. Macmillan.

266 pages. $24. Each year, the business side of baseball seems to encroach further onto the field, which too often consists of artificial turf. Ongoing battles about salary arbitration, free agency and the powers of the commissioner are pressed onto fans' consciousness. About June, the dedicated fan can usually put the off-field dithering out of mind and concentrate on the unchanged piety of balls and strikes.

Two long-time observers of the baseball scene have used this book to tell us it's probably going to get worse. With overly generous television contracts about to expire, spiraling salaries cemented throughout the line-up by salary arbitration, and widening disparities between large and small media markets, it's going to get harder and harder for the typical fan just to worry about whether the latest rookie phenom has a good enough curveball to stay in the major leagues.

Maybe it's just the season, spring at hand and the first game that counts not yet played, but it's hard to believe that Major League Baseball will actually self-destruct. Then again, you can probably find optimistic Florida Marlins fans this time of year.

Jack Sands, a sports lawyer and player representative, and Peter Gammons, chief baseball analyst for cable network ESPN, are not totally pessimistic about the future of professional baseball. For one thing, they see more real-grass, baseball-only parks similar to Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards being built in the 1990s.

But they do cogently argue that a continued adversarial relationship between players and owners and growing acrimony among the owners themselves, depending on their varied circumstances, can only further hurt the game.

While offering a general plan for ending the economic conflicts of Major League Baseball, the authors, like others before them, hold up the rejuvenated National Basketball Association as a model.

Mr. Gammons and Mr. Sands write that "what really rescued the NBA was a novel revenue-sharing agreement entered into between the clubs and the players in 1983 to save the league from bankruptcy. In return for the clubs agreeing to pay the players 53 percent of the league's gross revenues, the players agreed to a salary cap."

But in the topsy-turvy world of baseball, the authors note, players' union representatives have become advocates of laissez-faire economics. Having gained much through free agency and arbitration (except for a period,excellently detailed, when owners were found to have colluded against free agents), players understandably don't see much reason to change the system. Who can blame them?

Kansas City Royals star George Brett once said, "Hey, I didn't put a gun to anyone's head. If they can't afford to pay me what they're paying me, they wouldn't." That makes sense in a capitalist economy. And players aren't the only ones who greet with cynicism some owners' constant cries of poverty.

The authors are knowledgeable guides through the often arcane worlds of baseball management, finance and labor relations. But because the threats to Major League Baseball are so varied and multifaceted, the book would have benefited from a summary chapter up front that gathered together the problems for a better view of the big picture.

Instead, we hop around from the built-in contradictions of the commissioner's job, to the good chance of a rival league starting up if Major League Baseball continues to stumble, to the unexplored international potential of the professional game (this last topic is quite a fascinating one).

A smaller problem is that the authors don't discuss their sources or include notes to any of the chapters, making things difficult when they refer to private conversations or apparently private thoughts of others.

The authors' general prescription for peace and prosperity in the Major Leagues boils down to this: "Getting the owners and players to allow a free market system to operate without salary arbitration will be the first big step. A more permanent partnership built on trust and mutual respect is even more important."

And, oh yes -- baseball has to start listening to what fans want or else those long-dormant spenders might finally get fed up and use their money on another form of entertainment. Their choices keep multiplying.

It's a well-reasoned and practical set of suggestions. But baseball fans are a skeptical lot, albeit more than a little masochistic. Listen to the fans? Great idea. We'll believe it when we see it.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

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