Players take new strategy to the people, score first against owners

August 08, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Much of what has ensued in the early posturing between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the opposition, the team owners, is different from anything that happened in the past. The players for the first time in all their strike experiences are now trying to attract the fans -- you, you and you -- to their side of the argument.

It's a stance they never used before. In the past, the intent was to shut down the game and beat the owners at the negotiating table. Through the financial enhancement process, they were, in turn, willing to accept criticism from the press and public for inflicting punishment on the disenchanted ticket buyers.

But now the approach has changed as the deadline comes into view for the latest walkout on Friday. The players, under executive director Donald Fehr, are "working the room," so to speak, in a public relations attempt to create sentiment for themselves in the dispute.

When Fehr made a cause celebre out of the owners' failure to pay close to $8 million into the players' pension fund by Aug. 1, it was suggested that in retaliation the strike date would be advanced by the players. A meeting of team representatives was called, followed by a news conference where Fehr said the players, although justified to stop playing at that moment, had decided not to alter the strike schedule.

They would, though, adhere to the previously established termination date of Aug. 12. It was an effort to portray the players, Fehr's members, as being entirely honorable. They were playing off the decision by management not to make pension funds available. So the owners were the ogres and responsible for creating the unrest -- not the players.

In wrestling it's known as the "baby face" versus "heel" matchup. Now, the players, as they go to the mat with the owners, project themselves as innocent victims. The players never used to care about fan sentiment in a strike. Just give 'em the money, listen to a cacophony of boos after play is resumed and, in a day or so, the stands would quiet.

Just like that, the players would return to the good graces of a once-again adoring fandom. In the mind-set of players, fans will get tired of hurling insults and treat them, again, as heroes. This time, the players association not only figures it'll administer another beating to the owners but, along with it, persuade the public emotionally to back the athletes -- not those selfish owners who denied the pension funding.

Before the strike even started, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves broke ranks by making statements that "told" the players the owners were not unified. It signaled the players that management wouldn't stand together.

Regarding the money the owners withheld from the players, let it be stressed this was a "knockdown pitch" to notify the uniformed employees they had a tough adversary on their hands, not a collection of cream puffs who would collapse under a strike threat. Fehr's quick move was to use this ploy directly against the owners. And it worked.

Now, more so than before, it's the "greedy owners" instead of the "greedy players." This all came about because Fehr turned the double play, to use the parlance of the game, and backed the owners into a corner of their conference room.

There isn't anyone with a grain of sense who thought the owners were going to put the money for the pension fund in their pockets. But Fehr made it appear that way in the sport of winning public support. He also championed another popular cause.

Previously, the players association (the strikers) didn't always take care of the retired players. Sometimes, yes, but it wasn't always brought to the attention of the public. But that aspect has changed. The agenda is to upgrade pension benefits of players involved in the game before 1970. That rates applause.


Of interest to the modern players are two pertinent quotes from Babe Ruth, who gave the game impetus to attain record popularity.

In 1948, the year of his death, he said: "Ballplayers should get all they can in the way of salary from their bosses, and there should be no ceiling on salaries." So Ruth was expressing sentiments on what is now a proposed "salary cap" and didn't need a Fehr to tell him.

Previously, Ruth had said: "A man ought to get all he can earn. A man who knows he's making money for other people ought to get some of the profit he brings in. Don't make any difference if it's baseball, a bank or a vaudeville show. It's business, I tell you. There ain't no sentiment to it. Forget that stuff."

Baseball, which none of us need Ruth or Fehr to point it out, is a momentous business that trades on emotion. Fehr, as never before, has gained an edge for his side.

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