Players, owners become major-league dreamers

September 16, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

There is a lot of talk about the form in which baseball will return once it does. We read that the players are considering starting their own league. We read that the owners are considering opening camps next spring and using replacement players if necessary.

Sure, and Don Fehr is going to tour the country with a stand-up comedy act.

Both ideas are preposterous. Strictly dreamland stuff.

A league run by the players? Here is what you'd get:

* Minimum salary of $2 million a year.

* Boo-birds and autograph seekers subject to arrest.

* Majority vote overrules manager on lineup and strategy decisions.

* No player forced to do anything if he "really doesn't want to."

That the players would even think for a second that they could run a league shows how spoiled they are by the fantasy world in which they live. Most of them can't even book a commercial plane flight, and they're going to be in charge?

The players are wonderfully talented people who have no idea how much money and time it takes to put on the show. Sure, they'd hire people to do all the work. But that would present an even bigger problem. Many players are cheap, as anyone who has watched them cut up bonus shares at the end of the season knows. The players would freak if they saw how many people, and how much, they had to pay.

Watching them review their payroll would be one of the great moments in sports history.

Player/owner No. 1: "What's this dude do?"

Player/owner No. 2: "I don't know, but I think he makes sure that the scoreboard works or something."

Player/owner No. 1: "What do we need him for? It works good."

Player/owner No. 2: "You're right. Cross him out, dude."

Of course, there are much larger problems that would need to be addressed before such a league could exist. The leases signed by the major-league teams and stadium companies would seem particularly problematic. ("We're paying the lawyer how much? I'm calling my dad right now.")

The players don't get it. They're popular only because they're part of a treasured continuum, the history of baseball. They'd be shocked how little people would care about them as members of the Honorary Marvin Miller Baseball League and Medicine Show.

The chances of them organizing and operating a successful rival to the major leagues are about the same as the chances of Bud Selig waking up tomorrow and saying, "Gosh, you know, I think I blew it."

That the owners will open camps next year and start playing with whomever shows up, minor leaguers if necessary, is a far more serious possibility. The owners think they might be able to break the players' union that way.

As usual, the owners are deluded. A couple of players might break ranks, but not many. If you hadn't noticed, the union is incredibly solid. The vast majority of the players will do anything to avoid becoming known as the group that gave back 25 years of gains. They'd have no respect among their peers.

If the owners open camps, no more than a trickle of players will come in. Maybe none.

AThe owners still might try to play a season with a bunch of minor leaguers. They'll want to appease the thousands of season ticket holders who will have bought seats hoping a settlement is reached.

But a replacement season would fail miserably as a commercial product.

While the NFL's use of replacement players succeeded in getting the real players back to work in 1987, that was because of the union's lack of resolve, not the success of the games, which were a bust in all but a couple of cities.

And it's a lot harder to trick fans with cheap baseball than cheap football. You can almost get away with replacement players in football, where it's hard to determine the quality of play as long as the teams are even and the quarterback can throw the ball 30 yards. Lower quality is much more obvious in baseball. The shortstop can't throw to first. The relief pitcher can't control his curve. The outfielder doesn't hit the cutoff man.

Few fans will pay major-league prices to watch the Albany Polecats posing as the Orioles. And who would really care if they won or lost? Would anyone really believe those were the Orioles out there?

Here is the truth: There is no substitute for major league baseball. The sport will return in a credible, compelling form only when the players and owners finally settle their dispute. That is what fans want.

Their old teams and players back, in the same leagues, playing the same opponents. Just like always.

When the strike ends, and it will, the fans will come back like they always do, the games will resume and the damage will be negligible. Don't believe the Chicken Littles. The sky won't fall on baseball.

Sure, it's lousy that the World Series was canceled. There might be some short-term damage. But not much. And two years after the strike is settled, any damage will be repaired. People won't even remember the strike. They won't care about the politics that caused it. They'll just be glad there is a ballgame to watch. A major league ballgame.

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