The Strike Is Really the Public's Fault

August 18, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--Unsavory as the baseball dispute has been, something is to be learned from it.

As grotesque as players and owners seem in this dismally greedy confrontation, as victimized as the poor baseball fan appears, most of the blame can be placed on the doorstep of the American public.

For generation after generation, we have let baseball avoid playing by the rules. The strike is the price for that.

First of all, we exempted it from one of the most basic principles of American society, when we agreed to allowed it to deny its players the right to sell their labor to the highest bidder.

That outrage was only partially mitigated when some players were given the right to become free agents, and its legacy continues to poison labor relations in Major League baseball today.

The solution is as simple as it is unacceptable to most of the participants. Baseball ought to go cold turkey, and plunge completely into the free market.

Free agency ought to begin when a player signs a Major League contract. Salary caps and other restrictions on compensation should be abandoned forthwith. Players should earn, and teams should pay, what the market will bear.

In the meantime, baseball ought to stop looking to government for special rules or exemptions -- and government ought to quit creating them.

It would not be long before fans, owners and players all began to benefit. They would find that freedom, although sometimes messy, invariably works.

Why shouldn't baseball players, like ordinary Americans, be allowed to change their jobs at will?

The traditional objections have been twofold. It would benefit the richer teams, which could outbid poorer ones for talent. And by weakening ties between teams and players, it would dilute fan loyalty.

Neither of these objections holds up. Of course money helps a team improve; in baseball as in other businesses, success finances more success. But there are cycles in baseball as in the rest of life, generally not caused by economics.

Dynasties come to an end. Organizations age and decay. Key people -- managers, scouts, groundskeepers -- move on.

Inevitably, some teams are going to be richer than others. This has to do with markets, management and, sometimes, a bit of luck. For the same reasons, some teams are going to be poorer.

From time to time, the poorest teams may fail economically, and have to find new owners or even new cities. Both are readily available. This kind of adustment is not the end of the world for the country, for baseball or even for the teams.

As for fan loyalty, it's a joke to suggest that Major League baseball's policies in recent years have had that in mind at all.

Baseball fans are loyal to winning teams, but they're also loyal to teams that treat them well. Fans also expect a certain loyalty from players; if a team makes a serious effort to re-sign a favorite player, but fails, at least as many fans will fault the player as will fault management.

It's worth noting that if all Major League baseball players were automatically made free agents, able to take different jobs just the way lawyers or chefs or newspaper reporters often do, it would not necessarily lead to a wave of team-swapping.

For one thing, a contract is a contract, or ought to be. A player who signs a contract to play for one organization is bound by its terms.

He can't play for anyone else until the contract is up, unless his employer releases him or trades him. Enforceable contracts are what keep free markets orderly.

Second, although most players would continue to be money-oriented, there are other considerations. The Orioles are lucky to have Cal Ripken, but it's a two-way street. As long as he feels fairly compensated, it's hard to imagine that he would want to leave Baltimore, even for a token pay raise.

What if another team offered him twice the money? (That seems unlikely, as his value to the Baltimore franchise probably exceeds what other ownerships would pay.) Maybe he'd take it, and maybe he wouldn't.

As most of us know, the real world is full of hard decisions, and there's no reason baseball players, whether Hall of Famers or journeymen, should be exempt from making them.

Plaintively, reporters asked President Clinton the other day if he couldn't do something about the baseball strike. He had the wit not to make any promises, which was a relief.

It is because there has been so much special pleading on baseball's behalf over the years that it is in the mess it is in.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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