Ordinary guy has no affinity for either side

August 18, 1994|By BILL TANTON

What keeps coming back to me is the lament of the woman I met over coffee in a Cooperstown, N.Y., diner shortly after dawn the other day.

This was a Cooperstown resident, I learned, who was a retired secretary at the Baseball Hall of Fame just across the street.

"What do you think of the baseball strike?" I asked.

She shook her head and looked down at her coffee.

"I don't understand it all," she said softly. "But it's sad. It really is sad. Don't they know what they're doing to themselves?"

I think of that daily as the players strike, now in its seventh day, continues.

It is sad. It's sad for a lot of reasons.

It's sad because it didn't have to happen.

As the Florida Marlins' dynamic owner, Wayne Huizenga, says of the strike: "It should have been negotiated out. There was plenty of time."

It's sad because there's plenty of money available in baseball.

Players' salaries and club revenues continue to climb. Baseball's total projected revenues for this year were $1.7 billion. The players' compensation for the first time would have gone over $1 billion.

The fighting is about one thing: how to divide all that loot.

To ordinary wage earners -- not to mention the unemployed -- that's pretty sickening.

The whole thing is sad, not because baseball is a necessity. It's not.

It's sad because baseball is a valued part of our culture but this latest work stoppage (play stoppage?) is further dividing those who need to come together to preserve it. It divides players from owners, fans from the game.

Who's right? Who's wrong? A new Time/CNN poll says 34 percent of those asked blame the owners. Blaming the players: 29 percent. Equal blame: 15 percent. The rest were "not sure" or just plain don't care.

Are players paid too much?

We know the players' average salary this year is $1.2 million. More than 100 of them are earning more than $3 million.

The poll found that 73 percent of those surveyed say yes, the players are paid too much. Three percent say they're paid too little (where did they find those people?).

You see? Nobody gets off scot free. The public is ticked with everybody.

"I'm glad the players are out," says Jamie Hopkins, who works in a music store in The Rotunda. "I hope they stay out. The players are so greedy that I hope they don't come back for the rest of the season."

"They can do away with the sport as far as I'm concerned," says Bill Rush, owner of the store and a former baseball lover.

"The game is all money now," he says. "They've gotten completely away from what baseball is supposed to be."

I personally know of no greater fan than Tilghman Strudwick, an Orioles season-ticket holder who even goes out of town to see games. He also makes annual pilgrimages to Cooperstown.

"I'm not going to any more Orioles games this year, even if they do come back," Strudwick promises angrily. "These players are so greedy.

"It's a joke for them to call their association a union. Every other union in the country has made give-backs. These guys have no idea what a union is."

I don't know which side to blame.

Sure, the players earn ungodly sums playing a child's game, but they're entertainers, much like Oprah Winfrey, who makes $52 million a year.

Why should the players agree to a salary cap? The owners have no earnings cap.

Some clubs do lose money. When Charles Bronfman, whose family owns Seagrams, owned the Montreal Expos, he said:

"I could lose $15 million a year, but why should I? I'd rather give the money to Associated Jewish Charities."

And so he sold the ballclub, which whining owners today could also do. If baseball is such a poor investment, why have nine groups, including one in Northern Virginia, filed application for expansion franchises for 1997?

And why should the players trust owners who already have been found guilty of collusion and fined $11 million per club?

That's another thing that's sad. There's no trust. That's why the players aren't going to believe there are so many money-losing clubs until they open their books, as Orioles owner Peter Angelos has suggested.

An interesting book called "The Name of the Game -- the Business of Sports" was published this year, the preface written by Angelos.

"If we don't get our house in order," he wrote, "the public will become disenchanted. More wrangling and more acrimony will lead to the fans determining that the great American pastime has deteriorated into nothing more than a money-making operation, with management and labor fighting over the spoils."

Isn't that precisely where we are now?

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