Forecast for the future of game is cloudy at best

On Baseball

November 16, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Four years of labor unrest didn't change anything. Neither did revenue sharing, realignment, interleague play or expansion. Major League Baseball -- still in search of a renaissance -- instead continues on the road to ruin.

Perhaps that is a little harsh. The game has survived two world wars and a canceled World Series, so it probably will survive another winter of economic unrest, but the issues that have dominated the headlines the past three weeks paint a dismal picture of the sport and its future:

The Florida Marlins became the first wild-card team to win the World Series, then immediately set about the unholy task of dismantling their championship roster. Moises Alou, who may have been the club's most valuable player, was traded last week to the Houston Astros for prospects, and more payroll reductions are imminent.

The World Series received some of the lowest television ratings ever recorded for a Fall Classic.

Montreal Expos pitcher Pedro Martinez won the National League Cy Young Award, but is expected to be traded soon after this week's expansion draft.

The Orioles reached the American League Championship Series twice in a row, but manager Davey Johnson quit under fire.

Baseball owners remain so divided that they did not come close to passing the regional realignment plan that many believed would help make the game more marketable, settling instead for a modest plan that simply allowed them to keep the two new expansion teams in their own regions.

Give interim commissioner Bud Selig credit for trying, and for agreeing to settle the realignment impasse by moving his team to the National League, but the industry remains in crisis.

The Marlins are living proof. Owner Wayne Huizenga committed $89 million last winter to turn the club into an instant World Series contender and succeeded, but got fed up with the team's soft revenues and put it up for sale at midsummer. Now, he's selling it off piece by piece, beginning with the Alou deal.

It should stand as a monetary morality play for the rest of baseball. Huizenga was partially responsible for the industry's latest salary spiral and now he's bailing out, even though he's one of the richest owners in professional sports and can easily afford to subsidize the red ink under the bottom line.

The message to fans is clear: Don't get too comfortable with that contender of yours.

The Orioles' star-studded roster won't be dismantled. Owner Peter Angelos has never shied away from spending what was necessary to put a winning team on the field, but the clash of personalities that led to Johnson's resignation is bound to create some insecurity.

The hiring of pitching coach Ray Miller should help the organization maintain a sense of stability, but the whole episode raises questions about the direction of Major League Baseball.

The harsh economic realities of the industry -- i.e. rising payrolls and stagnant revenues -- have prompted many owners to take a far more hands-on role in the operation of their clubs. The Angelos/Johnson soap opera may be an extreme case, but it isn't unreasonable to think that an owner would want some accountability from an employee who earned $750,000 per year.

Angelos and his fellow large-market owners have held their tongues on one particularly troublesome issue, but that oral restraint may turn to moral outrage when the Expos deal Martinez later this month.

The Orioles have been one of the biggest contributors to the revenue-sharing pool that was devised by the owners to enhance competitive balance between the big-revenue and small-revenue clubs, but the cooperation of the large-market owners was based on the assumption that the money would be used to sign free agents and keep star-quality players.

In practice, however, it provides an incentive for some clubs to keep payrolls down, since the franchises with the lowest payrolls are rewarded with the biggest subsidies. The richer clubs can't say they weren't warned. That was exactly the reason the Major League Baseball Players Association put up so much resistance when the owners tried to liken revenue sharing to a salary cap four years ago.

If the Expos aren't going to keep the best pitcher in the National League, what hope do the fans in Montreal have of seeing their team reach the World Series?

It might be difficult to recognize a clear connection between the game's economic problems and its flagging television ratings, but it is there somewhere. Most critics point to the slow pace of the game and the late starting times of the sport's premier events, but residual fan resentment over the poor management of the industry -- and the fractious relationship between ownership and labor -- still is very much apparent.

Expansion fine

Major League Baseball reportedly has put a $250,000 bounty on any baseball official who leaks one of the 15-man protected lists to the media.

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