Diamond-shaped labor peace Baseball agreement: Did team owners, players learn anything from costly dispute?

November 29, 1996

YOU CAN'T blame fans for their skepticism about the long-overdue accord between baseball owners and players. So much has been lost during this dispute.

Two strike-shortened seasons. A year without a World Series. Utter contempt for the public shown by both sides. Losses of $1 billion for owners, $400 million for players. Sagging attendance and TV ratings. Fans angrily turning away from the former national pastime.

Salvaging a labor agreement at least prevents matters from getting worse for a few years. The greed of owners and players remains all too obvious. Baseball is big business, involving incredible sums. Q: How will fans be treated after this settlement is ratified? A: Most likely with higher ticket prices.

Baseball is the only major sport without a permanent commissioner to bring order and discipline. The last one, Fay Vincent, was fired for daring to try to settle the labor dispute peacefully. Hard-line owners took control, propelling the game into a pointless strike and installing one of their own, Bud Selig, as acting chief -- despite a built-in conflict of interest.

Yet even when owners came to their senses this week, they accepted an agreement that doesn't solve fundamental problems. Large-market clubs can still sign superstars to exorbitant contracts -- though they must pay a "luxury tax" penalty. Small-market clubs get some relief through a modest revenue-sharing plan, but not enough for parity. There is a cap on team salaries, but it is set so high it won't restrain payroll inflation. Besides, the cap can be ignored by deep-pocket owners.

Fans, at least, will see interleague play for the first time (the Orioles vs. the Mets, Phillies, Expos, Marlins and Braves next year). Two expansion clubs arrive early in the next decade (a team in Mexico looks likely). And major-league baseball won't be interrupted by strikes before the end of the 2000 season.

What the sport needs now is a permanent commissioner with power to mediate disagreements and act in the best interests of the game. Don't count on it, though. America's long romance with the summer pastime turned sour during the four-year labor struggle. It may never be the same unless owners and players start thinking more about the preservation of their sport and less about their personal enrichment.

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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