Play ball -- and negotiate

April 06, 1995

Hardly anyone came out of major league baseball's ugly 234-day labor conflict with an unsmirched reputation.

The owners look more than ever like the gang that can't shoot straight. Leaders of the players union managed to lose public sympathy, too. Both sides now appear equally greedy and unconcerned about the fans and baseball's increasingly thread-bare claim as the national pastime.

Baltimoreans, however, have the consolation of embracing two of the exceptions. Peter Angelos, the Orioles' owner, proved a lonely voice of reason in management ranks. Cal Ripken Jr. is not alone among players who acted honorably in the standoff, but he had a lot more at stake.

Mr. Angelos was virtually alone among the owners to say out loud what should have been obvious to all of them: The campaign to resolve their financial problems by imposing a salary cap was increasingly self-defeating. So, seven-and-a-half months later, the owners are $700 million poorer, without revenue sharing or a salary cap.

The Orioles owner may not win a prize for tact or diplomacy, but his ideas for a tax on salaries over a set limit that would finance improvements for the weaker clubs comes closer to easing baseball's financial problems than any we've heard. His career as a labor lawyer certainly influenced his opposition to using replacement players, but it made good business sense, too. Baseball's lopsided economics need to be rationalized but the small-market clubs won't be rescued by a return to '30s-style labor rules.

Mr. Ripken's determination to break Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played -- not his $6 million salary -- is what baseball is all about. For the fans cheering on the indestructible shortstop, it would have been tragic to see his exemplary motivation fail because of the strike.

Now it's time to play ball on the field -- and in the negotiating room. Major league owners have failed to break the union, and the players have accepted in principle a limiting mechanism on escalating salaries. The truce in the labor war -- that's all it is -- allows time for realistic, two-way, hard-headed bargaining. Let's hope both sides now see the damage they've done to their sport and finally come to their senses.

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