Not just end of a season

September 16, 1994

Cancellation of the remainder of the 1994 baseball season provides a good vantage point for reviewing how America's pastime got into this mess. When the strike started Aug. 12, a lot of fans were equally disgusted with both sides, greedy millionaire players and equally greedy multi-millionaire owners. In the ensuing month, neither side earned any prize for enlightened negotiating, but it looks more and more as if the owners are the real villains in this disaster.

The owners served notice last year that they were reopening the major league labor agreement, then took 18 months to get a formal proposal on the table. They agreed among themselves to share revenues, giving the "small-market" clubs a share of the more prosperous organizations' incomes. But the agreement included the condition that the players must also agree to a ceiling on their collective salaries. The players said from the beginning they would never agree to the salary cap. Just about everyone believed them, too -- everyone, that is, except a small coterie of owners.

At first some observers, including us, thought the old-guard owners were simply living in the past, fighting old battles over again in the way of obsolete generals. Now the evidence points to a long-range strategy from the start: Break the backs of the obstreperous players union and take back the gains it has won for its members in the past two decades.

If that theory is correct, the next move will come this winter, when the owners impose the salary cap unilaterally. That would touch off a legal battle, which would not be settled by the time spring training time comes around. The ball clubs open training camps on schedule, and tell their players to show up or else. Some of the owners clearly believe many of the players, as self-centered as their bosses, would comply. End of strike, end of players union.

Perhaps. No one, least of all the players themselves, really knows how they would react to such a challenge next year. But other likely outcomes can be forecast. One is a blow to baseball's mystic hold on the U.S. public. All fans know in their hearts that baseball is a business first, a sport second. But to have the ugly side of commercialism flaunted so blatantly would tarnish the pastime forever. And once baseball lost its grip on the country's emotions, Congress would no longer fear to end the sport's legally indefensible exemption from the anti-trust laws. There might be baseball next year, even major league baseball. But it wouldn't be America's pastime any longer.

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