Minus pilot, owners are in a tailspin

November 08, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Major League Baseball won't name a commissioner until it gets a labor agreement. And it won't get a labor agreement until it names a commissioner.

Only the Lords of Baseball could create their own Catch-22.

Their latest stunt makes sense only to those familiar with the sport's labor history, in which nothing ever makes sense.

On Wednesday, the Lords voted, 18-12, to reject a proposed settlement in their 100 Years War with the players.

Randy Levine, the first owners' negotiator since 1990 to reach agreement with union chief Donald Fehr, should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Instead, he's expected to resign.

The Lords hired Levine to cut a deal, knowing they've got $500 million in sponsorship money coming the moment they secure labor peace.

But on second thought, they'd rather bleed more untold millions if there's still a chance to bloody the players, too.

Levine exacted a monumental concession -- a luxury tax that would limit salary growth for three years.

He reached an agreement that would put baseball out of its labor misery until 2001.

He even developed a working relationship with the hated Fehr.

So, how did the owners reward this man who threatened to fatten their wallets into the next century?

By humiliating him.

By kicking him out before they voted.

For this, Levine can thank his boss, acting commissioner Bud Selig, whose own team, the Milwaukee Brewers, voted against the settlement.

If Selig is a master at building consensus, why couldn't he hold this deal together for even a week?

Ask his master, Jerry Reinsdorf.

"The real story here is not so much whether the owners are good people or bad people," said Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and the author of "Baseball and Billions."

"It's a reflection that once again, the sport is leaderless, rudderless. The owners simply are unable to develop a consistent, coherent strategy and stick by it.

"How do you deal with it if you're Don Fehr? How do you deal with it if you're potential sponsors?"

It has become almost a cliche to criticize Selig for all of baseball's ills. But each crisis illustrates how much his conflict of interest is damaging the sport.

"He's structurally in an impossible situation," said Zimbalist, a former consultant to the players union. "The notion of being an owner and being commissioner is just ridiculous.

"It was dramatized with the Roberto Alomar incident and his inability to step forward and say in the interests of baseball that a five-day suspension postponed to next season is unacceptable.

"Bud Selig is a man with some talents as a conciliator and very few talents as a leader. Baseball is sorely in need of leadership."

And, more than ever, Selig looks like a follower.

A leader would have persuaded the owners to accept the settlement, even though it was seriously flawed.

Indeed, the luxury tax was in place only for the first three years of the five-year agreement, giving free-spending owners an NFL-style loophole.

To sign a player to a five-year, $29 million contract, you could beat the tax by giving him $3 million each of the first three years, then $10 million each of the next two.

Another problem: Without a payroll minimum, small-market clubs had no incentive to spend the extra money they'd receive under revenue sharing.

The Pittsburgh Pirates would have been in the same predicament if their payroll were $10 million or $20 million.

They wouldn't win.

So, why would they spend on a star?

Troubling possibilities, but labor peace carries its own benefits, as any rational CEO could tell you.

General Motors wasn't thrilled with the three-year deal it reached last week with the United Auto Workers. But it was terrified by the prospect of a national walkout.

"Like any negotiation, you never get everything you want," said General Motors CEO John F. Smith Jr. "We're pleased with the way it has worked out. We can get the things done we need to get done."

Baseball needs to win back its old fans and cultivate new ones. But it can't even implement interleague play -- an important new marketing tool -- without a labor agreement.

Think of the opportunity that was lost Wednesday: Levine could have continued working with Fehr to forge a partnership between the owners and players. And a new commissioner could have implemented a vision.

Now, what will the owners do? They can't try to implement a salary cap by declaring an impasse in negotiations. Levine concluded the negotiations successfully by reaching an agreement.

Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, said that fans should understand that "what we are doing is meant to be to their benefit to control the spiraling of salaries."

But will that mean lower ticket prices?

Doubtful.

So, the words "strike" and "lockout" are again part of the nTC baseball vocabulary, but the 1997 season likely will be played under the current economic system while the Lords plot some new ridiculous course.

First, they didn't want a commissioner who would interfere with labor negotiations. Now, they don't want a negotiator who would interfere with labor negotiations.

They're doomed by their own Catch-22.

No agreement without a commissioner.

No commissioner without an agreement.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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