Owners started labor war, and only they can finish it

August 11, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- It's not the players' fault.

Not the strike, which starts tomorrow and amounts to baseball's version of the War of the Worlds.

And not the game's economic structure, which is the result of collective bargaining, not grand larceny.

The owners started this.

Fans blame the players, because everyone knows who they are, and everyone knows their average salary is $1.2 million.

No one knows what the owners make -- check that, lose. One day 19 teams are losing money, the next day it's 12-14.

"Are 19 teams losing money?"

That was a question the union posed yesterday, according to Orioles player representative Mike Mussina.

"The industry will lose . . ." responded the owners' negotiator, Richard Ravitch.

"Are 19 teams losing money?"

"The industry will lose . . ."

Toddlers make better listeners.


"He just brings out a story," Mussina said. "He's like Aesop, but there's no moral."

Different planets.

War of the Worlds.

Surely, the owners knew this was coming, knew the players had no other leverage, knew their salary-cap proposal would provoke a strike.

A cap means the end of salary arbitration, the end of free agency as we know it, the reversal of every union advance in the past 22 years.

Ah, what's the big deal?

"He expects us to go, 'Gee, that sounds like a decent idea, Dick. Let's go with it. Why not?'" Mussina said.

"It's like we're deciding what we want to do tonight: 'Hey, you want to go to a movie? Hey, you want a salary cap?'"

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Cost certainty, the owners talk about cost certainty. They can't stick to a budget, so they're demanding the players set one for them.

Oh, the owners figure they're doing their part to help the struggling clubs. But even with revenue sharing, they're taking their usual self-serving approach.

They'll share the revenue they want to share -- not local radio and TV income, who do you think they are, Socialists? -- and the players will get stuck with the difference.

Because 19 teams are losing money.

Because of the dire need for competitive balance.

Never mind that the owners' small-market poster boys, the Montreal Expos, own the best record in the majors. They're doomed, Ravitch says. They'll lose all their best players.

Someone inform this baseball wizard that the Expos already have lost their best players -- from Andre Dawson and Tim Raines to Mark Langston and Dennis Martinez.

How do they stay competitive? By drafting wisely with the extra picks they gain from free-agent compensation, and by maintaining their emphasis on player development.

In short, by sound management.

Last winter, the Expos avoided taking a hit on arbitration by trading Delino DeShields for Pedro Martinez. Their shrewdness landed them a young, inexpensive pitcher who is now 11-5.

If the Expos lose Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom off this year's club, they'll simply plug in Cliff Floyd and Rondell White. The wealthy Orioles should be in such awful shape.

"That's not a disaster in the making," Orioles assistant player representative Jim Poole said. "That's a well-thought out plan of how to prepare your ballclub to win."

The owners claim the small-market sky is falling, but somehow, the Minnesota Twins won the 1987 and 1991 World Series, and the Pittsburgh Pirates won three straight division titles.

Sure, the Pirates were dismantled, but what if they had shown foresight? What if they had made like the Cleveland Indians and signed their best young players to long-term contracts?

Besides, the Pirates shouldn't win every year. Ravitch doesn't want to hear it, but in a sense, their demise was an example of how the free market can work to preserve competitive balance.

If the small-market teams can't make it, let them move to baseball-starved cities, let them build new ballparks, let them eat cake.

And if the owners want to get serious about a new basic agreement, let them drop their demand for a salary cap and start negotiating the significant issues.

They can make a strong argument for concessions on free

agency and salary arbitration -- with national TV revenue in decline, the game indeed faces economic uncertainty.

The players would still scream, but -- hah! -- that would expose their own greed. Public opinion would turn immediately, with the owners rightly shifting the blame.

They started this.

& Only they can stop it.

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