In baseball blame game, it's owners who strike out

July 10, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

I break baseball seasons into two groups. Those unencumbered by the threat of a strike, and those jeopardized by such a threat.

The strike-free years are much more enjoyable. It is easier to follow pennant races and study box scores and partake in all the other staples of fandom when there is the promise that the season will not halt in mid-swing, rendering irrelevant all that has occurred.

When there is the threat of a strike, the possibility that the game will fail to fulfill its fundamental promise to complete its season, everything has an asterisk by it. The Orioles are pretty hot these days, but it won't matter in the final reckoning if there is a strike later this year and this season gets bushwhacked in the fashion of the '81 season, which was halted for 50 days, skewed and diminished.

Accordingly, I take a more skeptical approach to a strike-threatened season. As a fan, I find it impossible to invest my interest with the same intensity and purpose. No matter what occurs, there is always a little voice in my head sounding off as follows: "Big deal. It won't matter anyway when they're on strike."

It is particularly troubling to have that voice clattering every day this season, when the Orioles and White Sox have almost identical records. I don't know about you, but there is nothing more annoying than a strike interfering with a good wild-card race. Ah, well.

Once again, the players and owners seemingly are separated by the kind of chasm that leads to a work stoppage. The owners, crying poverty, are proposing to revolutionize the game's economy by sharing their revenue and instituting a salary cap. The players basically are asking only that things remain the same.

Assigning blame doesn't do anyone any good and won't avert a strike, but let's do it anyway. Let's make sure we understand who is at fault here.

The owners are the problem.

They claim that the game is in disastrous economic shape, that player salaries are so high that teams in smaller markets can't compete with teams in larger markets. They claim that 19 of 28 teams are going to lose money this year.

These are arguments with all sorts of holes of them.

In the first place, there is no evidence linking payroll size and won-lost record. Small-market teams such as the Twins and Reds have won the World Series in the past five years. The big, bad Yankees haven't played in a postseason game since 1981.

Intelligence is worth a lot more than money in baseball. Notice that the sophomore Rockies are challenging the mega-market Dodgers? One of the beauties of the game is that, like horse

racing, riches don't necessarily mean success. You don't need superstars if you can grow your own talent and hit the cutoff man.

Besides, the owners are the ones who agreed to pay all the high salaries, anyway. Now that they want to limit the numbers with a salary cap, they're basically asking the players to do their work for them by accepting limits. It would be nice if the owners had exhibited even a semblance of self-control first.

Basically, there is no reason for the players to buy the owners' claim that the game is in disastrous shape. Remember, the owners colluded to squelch free agency a few years back. They're hardly trustworthy. They won't open their books to show the public the specifics. And why should we believe any cry of poverty when 50 people line up to pay $100 million or more every time a team is put up for sale?

If things are so bad, just sell.

Unfortunately, the players really have no choice but to strike this time. It's the only leverage they've got, and they need it: If the owners decide that negotiations are at an impasse, the owners can unilaterally impose a cap. Any union worker can understand that the players would be foolish to let that happen.

It's easy to look at the big picture as little more than rich men grabbing for each other's wallet, which is basically accurate. But the owners are the reason we find ourselves in this predicament, with the season threatened by a strike. Their cry is no different now than at any other point in the p last 100 years: The players make too much money, blah, blah. Translated, the owners just want to make more.

This time, the owners claim, some franchises will have to move if things don't change. That's a lousy reason to ask the players to accept a salary cap. If some franchises can't keep up anymore, too bad. Cleveland got it together, built a new stadium and recharged the franchise. If Cleveland can do it, anyone can. If other cities can't, sorry, but there are baseball-less cities out there that can. The game is called hardball, after all.

There's one possible way out of this mess, it seems. The owners give up on the cap in exchange for the end of salary arbitration, which they see as the devil. The players accept that in return for free agency after four years instead of six. Makes sense. But, of course, given the history between these two sides, if it makes sense it'll never happen.

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