Baseball pastime: labor woes

With ninth work stoppage looming, little has changed


July 28, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major-league baseball players earn an average salary of about $2.4 million for a six-month season, but they are talking about going on strike.

The Boston Red Sox franchise recently sold for nearly $700 million, but baseball management insists that the game is awash in red ink and headed for an economic meltdown that can only be averted with a dramatic change in the distribution of industry revenues and a new mechanism for controlling the growth of team payrolls.

Clearly, it is the best and worst of times for the national pastime, which appears to be on the verge of its ninth labor shutdown since 1972.

The Major League Baseball Players Association, the union that represents every player with a major-league contract, is contemplating possible strike dates as the sport wades into the second half of the 2002 season. Negotiations toward a new labor agreement with ownership are hung up over issues as disparate as revenue sharing and steroid testing.

"It has always been about us or about them," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. "It has never been about the fans. ... It turns my stomach."

Millions of baseball fans fear that this season will end the same way as the recent All-Star Game - cut short while tied 7-7 - with a bunch of guys in suits making a decision that seems to display little regard for the people who really pay the bills.

Fans eventually overcame their misgivings about the sport after the cataclysmic work stoppage that cut into both the 1994 and '95 season and caused the first World Series cancellation in 90 years, but the prospect of another self-defeating exercise in labor/management stubbornness already has had a negative impact on attendance throughout the major leagues. Attendance through the first half of the season reached 36.3 million, according to The Dallas Morning News, off 5.7 percent from last year.

So, what's it all about really?

Labor relations 101

It's about money, of course. Lots and lots of money. Players salaries have been spiraling upward since an arbitrator declared pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents back in 1975, effectively invalidating baseball's "reserve clause," which allowed teams to keep players under contract in perpetuity.

After that ruling, baseball owners were forced to reach a labor agreement with the players union that allowed players to become free agents after completing six years of major-league service and created a highly inflationary salary arbitration system.

Baseball owners have been complaining about runaway payroll costs and competitive imbalance ever since. Their efforts to control the growth of player salaries have led to a series of work stoppages, including a 50-day players strike in 1981 and the 1994-95 strike that precipitated a significant rise in fan cynicism and a sharp short-term drop in overall attendance.

If the 1994-95 fiasco was supposed to be the baseball labor war to end all baseball labor wars, somebody forgot to tell the players and owners, who appear headed in the same direction this summer.

"Nobody on either side wants to go through any of this at any time," said Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine, "but history repeats itself. It seems like every time an agreement has expired, cooler heads have not prevailed as far as getting a deal before something rash has to be done."

The owners insist that the game's top salaries have risen beyond reason, and they have some evidence to support that contention - most notably the 10-year, $252 million deal signed by superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez in December 2000. In one jump, the Texas Rangers doubled the largest single contract ever awarded to a team athlete in any professional sport, the previous record of $126 million (over six years) held by the NBA's Kevin Garnett.

That contract also highlighted management concerns about the lack of competitive balance between the richest and poorest clubs, since Rodriguez's average annual salary ($25.2 million) - at the time - was as much as some small-market clubs were paying for their entire rosters.

"The clubs have convinced themselves ... that they cannot maintain the status quo," commissioner Bud Selig said last week. "It is not working. In fact, there are people who really believe that of all the alternatives facing us, the status quo is the worst of the alternatives."

Union officials continue to express skepticism about the gloomy economic picture painted by management. The huge price recently paid for the Red Sox by a group of industry insiders (including former Orioles president Larry Lucchino) suggests that fear of an industry-wide economic collapse might be exaggerated.

Negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement have been going on for several months, but there has been little progress on the core issues. Union leaders met with player representatives on July 8 to plot bargaining strategy, but chose to delay a decision on a possible strike date.

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