What baseball needs

April 05, 1995|By Fay Vincent

NAPOLEON IS supposed to have sacked generals he said were unlucky.

Perhaps baseball owners will explain what just happened to them as "bad luck" -- though of course none of them will be sacked.

But bad luck cannot account for the absurd events of the past seven months since the players went on strike and the owners vowed to get a salary cap.

Now, as "real" baseball returns, we have the acting commissioner expressing pleasure that his fellow owners accepted the players' "unconditional" offer to return to work.

That's like Custer saying the Sioux unconditionally offered to come to the battlefield.

Heading into this negotiation, the owners felt cornered by factors beyond their control. They believed the union was powerful, selfish and led by ideologues who cared little for the game.

Their operating losses, said to be more than $400 million in 1994, would reduce franchise values. Most of all, they believed this negotiation represented their final chance to fix things.

So what did they do? They viewed the problem largely in "good guy-bad guy" terms. Get rid of the commissioner and the deputy who might interfere. Hire a new labor negotiator and, above all, stay united.

That happened. But it's what didn't happen that determined the outcome.

The owners did not develop a careful strategy and they misjudged the ability of their legal team. Lack of planning is endemic to baseball.

In 1990, the owners' labor lawyer told me that any fallback negotiating positions would be leaked by owners, so none could be discussed.

As a result, during the heat of a negotiation, the owners are constantly dealing with problems on the run. There is no careful war-gaming to develop countermoves in anticipation of obvious union thrusts.

Meanwhile, the union plays for time, confident that eventually a legal mistake will give it the dispositive edge.

Now where are we? The union leadership is properly flush as once again superior lawyering decided the battle.

But the latest win is limited and does not decide the war. The question is whether these same lawyers can work with owners during the coming season to construct a new economic mechanism that will provide a stable format for both the growth of the game and a decent sharing of revenues among owners and players.

I wonder. The lesson of baseball's labor history is that owners and players have sadly turned economic issues into a morality play. They see each other as evil.

And placing a moral cast on matters of money can only make the permanent solution extremely difficult to achieve. Baseball needs new players at the skill positions. The old methods have failed again.

Baseball also needs a few new ideas. Copying the National Basketball Association by seeking a salary cap is easy. But even that league now faces the issue of how to construct new sharing mechanisms.

The answer has seemed clear to me for some time. The owners and players must recapitalize the baseball business with players getting shares in the equity and future growth of the game. Almost as key, the owners have to believe in their economic future.

Many don't, even though the value of sports programming is growing and the emergence of the media superhighway is only going to drive franchise values even higher.

The challenge is to find smart, well-intentioned realists to sit down with the common objective of building the game on terms that provide owners and players with reasonable shares.

I don't see the current leaders designing this new structure. Nor do I see any change in leadership resulting from this latest fiasco.

But change is inevitable. After all, this game we love is ancient. I'll wait.

Fay Vincent was commissioner of baseball between 1989 and 1992.

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