WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The owners who control what no longer is the national pastime are about to get acquainted with what still is a national premise: Unchecked power will be abused, and so must be prevented. A controlling cabal of owners has abused such power, so Congress probably will repeal one prop of their domination, baseball's exemption from antitrust laws.
By actions first dilatory and then provocative, the owners engineered a strike by the players. Because of the exemption, the players had no other recourse for defense of their hard-won right to sell their services to the highest bidder.
Since the strike started the owners have rejected many player concessions, including proposals to tax payrolls to exert a ''drag'' on players' salaries. The owners prefer to use the power they think the exemption gives them to impose a ''salary cap,'' which is really a payroll ceiling. It would limit the owners' need to compete, and would do what they say they cannot do -- control their incontinent spending.
Largely because of huge disparities in local broadcast revenues, teams' incomes vary so much that some teams have payrolls larger than other teams' gross revenues. However, the myriad hatreds the owners feel for one another prevent rational revenue sharing. So the owners will only cheerfully share revenues they can squeeze from players by imposing payroll ceilings. (Because of revenue sharing in the National Football League, Reggie White, the premier free agent in 1993, could be signed by the team in the NFL's smallest market, Green Bay's Packers.)
The safest way to predict the weather is to predict that tomorrow's weather will resemble today's. You usually will be right. The safest way to gauge baseball disputes is to assume the owners are wrong. You usually will be right.
Many owners opposed radio and then television broadcasts of games because they thought attendance would collapse. All owners opposed free agency -- before it, a player was a team's chattel until traded or released -- on two grounds: Player mobility would destroy fan loyalty, and the best players would be monopolized by rich, big-market teams, thereby destroying competitive balance. But since free agency came 19 years ago, average per-game attendance has doubled and there has been unprecedented competitive balance, as measured by the number of different teams winning pennants.
In the 1980s the owners thought they could secretly collude against free agency. The $280 million they paid to players in damages proved them wrong. Congress will weigh this record of misjudgments when the owners say repeal of antitrust would be ruinous.
The owners may believe that Republican control of Congress makes repeal less likely. Wrong again. The issue is freedom, for individuals and market forces. And repeal would not constitute government intrusion into a private process, it would remove government by removing an anomaly in the law that prevents private bargaining processes from working.
Since the strike started, some teams have substantially increased ticket prices. Owners do with their tickets what they say players have no right to do with their talents -- charge what the market will pay. Owners say players' salaries drive ticket prices. Actually, baseball's surging revenues have enabled owners to bid up salaries. Since the strike started, the Phillies, Angels and Astros have signed three players to contracts worth $51 million for a total of 10 years.
The Topps company, which makes baseball cards, recently saw its stock price plunge almost 24 percent in one day because of an announced 68 percent decrease in in come compared with the same quarter last year.
Recently CBS paid $1.7 billion for rights to broadcast the college basketball tournament through 2002, evidence that the World Series is no longer even the second-biggest sporting event (behind the Super Bowl).
In a recent Business Week poll more than twice as many people named professional football as named baseball their favorite sport, and 45 percent said they missed baseball ''much less'' than they expected.
The owners are now threatening to crown their follies with an act of consumer fraud by fielding teams of ''replacement players'' and calling the result Major League Baseball. If they do, baseball's reigning world champions -- Toronto's Blue Jays, winner of the most recent World Series, 14 months ago -- can't participate. Ontario prohibits the hiring of striker replacements.
When the owners come to Congress to urge retention of the antitrust exemption, they will say: Continue to trust us to run the nation's last unpoliced cartel because we are doing so splendidly, and because repeal of the exemption would -- trust us on this -- injure baseball. Can Congress legislate the repeal while being convulsed by laughter?
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.