Latest confusion simply makes owners look dumb

On Baseball

November 10, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Baseball owners are nothing if not confusing, a muddle of contradictions and bizarre decisions that inevitably makes them look silly.

On one hand, Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga is a hawk, demanding a labor deal that will drag down player salaries. On the other hand, he reportedly is prepared to make a prohibitive offer to free-agent outfielder Albert Belle -- $10 million per year, or a whopping 15 percent more than Cleveland intends to offer -- an agreement that is bound to drive salaries higher.

Jerry Colangelo, owner of the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, spends a staggering $10 million to sign Travis Lee, a college free agent. Then he's upset when the other owners don't leap to support his wishes of being placed in the NL.

On the whole, the owners are losing millions of dollars in this venture called baseball. Franchises, from Pittsburgh to Oakland, are in jeopardy. And yet, somehow, in collective bargaining of utmost importance to the whole industry, they allow lead negotiator Randy Levine so much latitude that he feels comfortable announcing that he and union leader Don Fehr have reached an agreement.

Who in the heck, among the owners, was supposed to be monitoring Levine? If it was acting commissioner Bud Selig, why wasn't Selig directing Levine down the proper path in talks that took months?

The confusion simply makes the owners look dumb. Selig made millions selling cars, and maybe he doesn't understand what's happening. Maybe it would be best to describe the damage in terms he can comprehend.

At one time, baseball was like a new car, fresh off the truck. Even had that new car smell. But the Lords fired commissioner Fay Vincent, a move akin to ripping off the steering wheel.

They let the labor agreement expire, something like severing the driver's side door. The Lords have whined constantly about the players and their salaries (a dramatic escalation the Lords can blame each other for), the equivalent of splintering the paint job with a pitchfork.

The owners and players could not reach a labor agreement, the players went on strike, and the 1994 World Series was canceled. They might as well have jacked up the game of baseball and ripped off all its tires.

The Lords hired replacement players for spring training. Maybe Selig tried this in car sales. Maybe he claimed the VW Bug was every bit as good as a Mercedes. But it doesn't work in baseball.

Now, even as TV ratings plummet, there's all this confusion over the labor negotiations, there's all this confusion over the bargaining, leaving the false but very distinct impression the Lords are prepared to douse the whole interior of baseball, and throw a match on it, gutting everything.

If there is another labor war -- and now, that wouldn't appear to be a long way off -- the game will be reduced to nothing but a charred shell of its former self.

And that's the product they're trying to sell, like Selig sold cars.

Are they crazy?

Collins will rouse Angels

The California Angels have done a lot of sleepwalking the past two years, and new manager Terry Collins will jar them out of their slumber. Collins takes losing worse than any other manager in the majors, and for that he was disliked by many of the players in Houston. He would scream and yell and fume when the Astros lost, and that's exactly the sort of manager the talented Angels need.

"All I ask for is effort," said Collins. "When the fans leave this park, I want them to say, 'That team plays hard.' If you can leave something in the fans' minds, if your team is breaking up double plays and running balls out hard, that tells you the manager and coaches are getting it done."

The Angels will play hard under Collins, who won't accept anything less than 100 percent, guaranteeing he'll clash with some of the California players.

Imagine a manager like Collins with the Orioles, a team that does not instinctively respect authority (witness the response to Phil Regan and Davey Johnson). It's staggering to think of the clubhouse politics such a move would generate.

The AL teams that consistently played hard in '96: Minnesota (Tom Kelly can take the credit), Milwaukee, Seattle, Kansas City, and the Yankees, which goes a long way to explaining why New York won the World Series.

The Belle backup plan

It's hard to tell if the Indians really want to keep Albert Belle, or if they're merely posturing so they can say they tried to sign him. But they're prepared for his departure. "We all want Albert back," said Indians GM John Hart. "But we are not going to do anything to disturb the integrity of our club. It's not like we feel we have to sign Albert at all costs." The Indians have discussed trading for Giants third baseman Matt Williams (in exchange for pitchers Albie Lopez and Julian Tavarez and at least one other player), and if they pulled that off, they'd move Jim Thome to first base and sign somebody to play left field. They've told Belle's agent they want the issue resolved by Thanksgiving.

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