The Arithmetic of Baseball

August 02, 1994

There is a third party to baseball's latest labor-management war, which the owners and players may be underestimating. The fans.

Most experts discount fan displeasure because it has not seriously materialized in the last seven work stoppages. Yet given the mystical place baseball holds in our psyche, who knows what fan support would have been without the strikes and lockouts? Mystiques are not shatter-proof.

For the ordinary fan, it's hard to muster sympathy for millionaire ballplayers and multi-millionaire owners. In our free-enterprise system, the titans should be permitted to clash until a winner emerges. The owners believe the players have gained the upper hand through their ability to jump from high bidder to higher bidder. The players hark back to the dismal era of baseball when they were chattel, bound to a team like it or not, and paid accordingly. Each side insists on maintaining its incompatible defenses.

The trouble with this picture is similar to the labor-management issues that plagued heavy industry in the '50s. Both sides were so transfixed by the past they could barely comprehend the present, let alone perceive the future.

Baseball is entering a new economic era. Attendance may be slipping, temporarily camouflaged by the big successes of new ballparks. In a nation that is increasingly non-white, crowds at baseball parks remain overwhelmingly white. Income from national TV is off drastically. Some clubs -- how many is disputed -- are losing money and may not survive in their present locations.

At the same time, there is new excitement in the game. However many fans attend games, millions more follow it closely and spend money on sport-related products. The success of Camden Yards and newer versions demonstrate that owners with vision can generate attendance. While some clubs in smaller markets flounder on and off the field, others succeed. It's called management competence.

Both sides must eventually budge. The principles of untrammeled bargaining by players versus owners' ability to restrain costs can be translated into dollars. Dollars are divisible, when negotiators are willing to do the arithmetic.

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