Financial issues still haunting game

ON BASEBALL

December 14, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was about this time five years ago that baseball owners began their crusade for something called "cost certainty." Labor negotiator Richard Ravitch -- at the behest of influential owners Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf and John Harrington -- spearheaded a drive to convince the Major League Baseball Players Association that the future of the industry depended on the ability of management to determine in advance the cost of doing business.

The union did not bite, of course, and what followed was the worst in a series of collective bargaining nightmares that has diminished the stature of baseball in American society and allowed each of the other major professional sports to grab a bigger piece of the sports entertainment pie.

Would baseball be better off now if the players union had accepted a salary cap?

Probably. The game likely would be in better financial condition and the top four payroll clubs probably would have to work a little harder to make the playoffs each year. But the union raised an issue then that remains relevant now.

Union officials charged at the time that the owners were asking the players to exercise financial restraint because the owners were not capable of exercising it themselves.

For a while, the owners seemed to grasp that concept. The large-market owners finally persuaded the players to accept a watered-down luxury tax plan and began sharing more revenue to help the small-market clubs remain solvent. Teams began releasing players to avoid salary arbitration and managed to keep the average major-league salary almost stagnant for a couple of years.

It wasn't a perfect system, but the game seemed to be on the verge of some semblance of economic stability when the owners let the genie out of the bottle again.

Reinsdorf, the hardest of the salary cap hard-liners, shocked his fellow owners last winter when he signed outfielder Albert Belle to a five-year contract worth a record $55 million. The Florida Marlins followed with an ill-advised $145 million spending spree that brought them a world title in record time (for an expansion franchise) and also pushed them so close to the financial brink that they now are intent on breaking up that championship club.

Then came the two newest expansion clubs, who could be excused for a certain amount of first-year, free-agent exuberance, but also contributed greatly to the rejuvenated salary spiral with several over-market contracts.

Now this. The Boston Red Sox hand National League Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez a six-year contract worth a record $75 million, coming after the first season in which he won more than 14 games.

The owners, once again, have met the enemy, and it is themselves.

Harrington is the guy who should know better. He is one of the game's most powerful owners. He heads up several of ownership committees. He was the guy standing in front of the cameras calling for economic sanity during the lengthy players strike.

The Red Sox can't stop there. They will have to sign first baseman Mo Vaughn to a huge contract next, and figure to enter the season with two players earning more than a third of the club's total payroll.

No doubt, union officials are watching with glee as the owners self-destruct again, but they should understand what this really means. It means that the owners' self-fulfilling prophecy of gloom and doom is coming to pass and it means that the next time the owners convene to plot their labor strategy, a new leader will emerge and convince them that they can achieve cost control.

That new leader, by the way, will be Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, who will purport to show them the way that the NBA got its economic house in order.

Reinsdorf tried that five years ago, but it doesn't matter. Things will have gotten worse. The owners will be more determined than ever to get a handle on the salary spiral. They will point to the growing gap between the richest players and the rank-and-file as the reason that the union finally will crack. And history will repeat itself, for seventh time.

Impressive depth

The Orioles will arrive in spring training with five veteran starting pitchers on the roster, which should relieve any worry about the disappointing second-half performance of left-hander Jimmy Key.

Key's durability may be in question, but the arrival of Doug Drabek, the return of Scott Kamieniecki and the potential of youngsters Rocky Coppinger and Nerio Rodriguez almost guarantee that the team will have a quality pitcher in each of the five slots in the rotation.

The area of concern, of course, is the bullpen, where the Orioles will either go with Armando Benitez and Arthur Rhodes in a co-closer arrangement or sign a veteran closer. There have been rumors that the club is interested in Norm Charlton, but he is coming off a difficult year in Seattle and does not appear to be a strong bet to fill the void left by Randy Myers.

You gotta have Hart

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