Baseball strike denies owners their toys of summer

August 17, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Now what? Woodstock is over. We're at least a month away from the resumption of the O. J. trial. (Fortunately, for when I'm really bored, I've got Kato's testimony on tape.) I've already been on vacation. I've lost the joy in watching Clinton shoot himself in the foot.

What I want out of August is baseball.

What I get instead is a baseball strike.

Not only is that unfair, it's boring. It's C-Span stuff. I'd have more fun doing the lambada with Bob Dole.

Strikes don't have to be that way. There could be picketing and screaming and goons cracking heads. You know, like a typical "Married . . . With Children" episode. That's the kind of strike that would get the juices flowing.

Wouldn't you pay to see players picket? Try to picture Cal Ripken walking the line on the 4 a.m. shift. I'd like to see his sign just to find out if this adult literacy program works.

It's so easy to hate the money-for-nothing, chicks-for-free players. They're big, fat targets who sell their autographs and, we suspect, their souls.

So, sure, most people blame the strike on greedy players. But while it's definitely true that pampered, rich guys are ruining our summer, the surprise is that the really pampered, rich guys are the owners.

That's right. You want pampered? You want rich? The Busch family buys and sells every athlete in America combined 10 times over.

These guys who own the baseball teams own everything. They own Budweiser, Levis, newspaper companies, TV networks. Heck, they even own the players.

Baseball teams are toys for them, little amusements, for which they're willing to dig into their pockets and pay as much as $170 million.

And then they shut down the business because they don't like the fact that the players get such a big hunk of the money, which by all rights, belongs to the owners, doesn't it?

Let's talk pampered. Little George Bush, son of big George, gets to grow up to own the Texas Rangers. It's like what was once said of big George: He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

The owners count on the fact that you'll blame the players whenever there's a labor dispute.

Players are easy to blame. They make too much money. Their salaries are public. They're not as important as, say, teachers or cops. On the other hand, how many teachers can hit a ball as far as Ken Griffey Jr.?

I can see you're confused. I can tell by the Forrest Gump look in your eyes.

I'll make it easy. Here's a sports-labor-dispute axiom for you. The players can be right. And the players can be wrong. But the owners are always wrong.

In this case, the owners want something called a salary cap. That means that the owners would not be allowed to spend more than a set amount of money on players.

Why do they need a salary cap? For the same reason a junkie needs a rehab program. They can't stop themselves. They're hooked. They'll pay players unreasonable amounts of money just so they can tell their sky-box buddies that they know Barry Bonds.

What the owners want from the players is an agreement to take less than the owners are actually willing to pay them. The players aren't striking for more money. The players ask only that they can be paid as much as an owner would give them.

It's like this. You make $50,000 a year. Your boss is willing to pay you $60,000, but he wants you to sign a contract that says he can't pay you more than $40,000.

You'd agree to that? Should the players?

OK, you say the players make millions. Some of them do. That's because they're the very best at what they do. Like Jack Nicholson gets $10 million for a movie or Oprah gets $90 million for introducing us to women who love men whose mothers dated Elvis.

Players are the game.

Nobody pays to see an owner. Not even George Steinbrenner. Not even Steinbrenner's ego, which, by the way, he has willed to science.

Typically, owners try to tell you that the teams belong to the fans. Peter Angelos all but says that he bought the Orioles as a public trust. Then he lets his young sons make personnel decisions.

Don't feel sorry for the players. They're doing great. They'll win this strike, too, because the owners can't go very long without their favorite little toy.

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