Losing the game

August 13, 2002

FOR MOST of the more than 100 years of professional baseball, players were chattel. But over the last three decades, they have racked up an unbroken string of victories. Players now take home more than half the game's revenue, having gone from an average salary of $76,000 in 1977, the first year of free agency, to an average of $2.4 million this season. They control baseball. But where are they leading the game?

Yesterday in Chicago, their union backed off plans to set a strike date, at least for now. It's understandable if even the most ardent fans yawn. Another strike would be the game's ninth work stoppage since 1972, the fourth canceling games and likely the second killing the World Series. The new thing this year would be extraordinary bad timing, coming so close to Sept. 11.

In their negotiations, players oppose what appears to be the only solution to the game's growing financial problems: greater revenue sharing and salary limits. Their union bargains mostly for the unlimited possibilities of a relatively small number of mega-stars, who make, say, $10 million a year or more -- and the few big-market teams that can afford them. On the other side: the other teams and fans.

The union's recent drug-testing proposal evidences players' unreality. Compared with pro football and basketball tests, it's woefully thin. With illegal steroid use allegedly widespread, players would be tested next year. If 5 percent turn up positive -- that's 60 players -- they'll allow more survey tests in 2004. If there's still a problem, they'll finally go to random mandatory testing. Look for the home-run parade to rock on.

In this mess, team owners are a perfect match, complicit in the game's drug problems (home runs put fans in the seats) and its financial woes. (Quick! Somebody stop the Texas Rangers from paying another lousy pitcher $65 million for five years.) These are businessmen who say they can't turn a profit unless taxpayers build them stadiums. Certainly teams are in trouble, but no one believes owners because they've told so many lies. A lasting financial solution has to involve opening team books.

Then it's a matter of sharing the wealth under a system like the NFL's, which means a salary floor and ceiling, team salary caps and a lot more revenue sharing. Creativity is needed here because -- unlike pro football, where the big money flows from national TV contracts -- baseball's disparities stem from vast differences in local TV revenues. Then there's the problem of changing the system after investors spent, for example, $660 million for the Boston Red Sox based on anticipated big-market income. Some teams may have to be allowed to go bankrupt, a purging that just might be healthy.

As impossible as all that may seem, it still may not be enough to solve baseball's real problem: its growing irrelevance. When was the last time you saw kids playing a pick-up game? A slowly unfolding sport out-marketed by the NFL and NBA, baseball already is having a tough time with the soccer generation. Long games and annually shifting lineups aren't forging new loyalties.

Baseball will survive, as it has before when financial doom seemed imminent. But whatever the result of this year's bargaining, the game likely will continue growing even less essential to America.

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