Baseball owners got together in Chicago this past week to discuss the economic state of the game and explore ways -- short of collusion -- to bridge the widening gap between the big-revenue and small-revenue teams.
They did not reach any hard-and-fast conclusions, and they certainly did not publicly propose another all-out war with the Major League Baseball Players Association over cost control, but they did make it clear that the competitive crisis that they predicted in the early 1990s has come to pass.
By management's latest count, there are 18 teams that will enter the 1999 season with no chance of making the playoffs, which would be a convincing argument in favor of a hard salary cap, if anyone was still listening.
The owners have cried wolf so many times that this latest proclamation of doom -- however legitimate -- is barely drawing a sympathetic sigh from the game's recharged fan following.
Whatever headlines came out of the quarterly owner meetings were dwarfed by the news that the Anaheim Angels gave Mo Vaughn $80 million and the Arizona Diamondbacks continued their $100 million free-agent spending spree with the $52 million deal for pitcher Randy Johnson. And, locally, that the Orioles signed Triple Crown threat Albert Belle to a five-year deal worth $65 million.
Major League Baseball is more than capable of identifying the problem, but appears powerless to correct it, though commissioner Bud Selig said on Thursday that he may explore some possible remedies over the next few months.
The luxury tax plan that came out of the last labor war had a modest effect on salary growth. There were some teams that held their payrolls down to avoid being among the five top-payroll teams responsible for feeding the revenue-sharing pool. But the richest clubs were largely unbowed by the supposed disincentive, and the millions they funneled to the small-market teams didn't have any noticeable effect on competitive balance.
Now, with a new television contract in place and the recent introduction of two more free-spending teams through expansion, salaries are skyrocketing again and the link between spending and winning is stronger than ever.
It's only a matter of time before the owners renew their call for an NFL-style salary cap. But you won't hear those words for at least a few years, because the sport finally is on the public relations upswing in the aftermath of one of the most exciting seasons in history.
In the meantime, Selig likely will be working behind the scenes to convince the large-market clubs that it is in their best long-term -- interests to temper their profligate spending, but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Roger, over and out
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash has told reporters that he hopes to complete a trade involving pitching ace Roger Clemens within the next week. That should create some excitement at the winter meetings, which start Friday in Nashville.
Clemens officially asked the club to find him a new team early last week. He's eager to play on a contender or hook up with a club closer to his Houston-area home, but the Jays are expected to drive a hard bargain.
In addition to the two Texas clubs, the Blue Jays also are believed to be in serious talks with the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees. Here's a quick look at what the Jays are reported to have requested from each club:
Houston: Pitcher Shane Reynolds and outfielders Derek Bell and Richard Hidalgo.
Texas: Premier catcher Ivan Rodriguez or run-producing outfielder Rusty Greer.
New York: Pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Ramiro Mendoza and a package of prospects.
Cleveland: Outfielder Manny Ramirez and pitcher Bartolo Colon.
It seems highly doubtful that the Jays will succeed in getting everything they want from any of those teams, especially now that they are viewed as being under pressure to make a deal.
But they are likely to get good value for Clemens in the aftermath of his second straight Cy Young season.
The Yankees clearly are the team that is best equipped to make a deal for Clemens, which explains why the Blue Jays are asking for the world to trade him to their top divisional rival.
Don't be surprised if owner George Steinbrenner pays a heavy price to add another marquee pitcher to his budding dynasty, but GM Brian Cashman has been downplaying the possibility.
"I'm sure we'll look into it," Cashman told Newsday recently, "but is it realistic? Probably not. We've got a truckload of players. We have the ammunition to do what we want to do, but our payroll is at a point where we don't want to take on more payroll."
Steinbrenner loves to stock his clubhouse with star-quality players, but he also took pride in setting an AL record for regular-season victories last year without maintaining the highest payroll in baseball. That distinction, of course, went to the Orioles.
One more thing