Go ahead, strike

game has been out for long while

August 17, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

SO, WHAT IF Major League Baseball goes out on strike and nobody cares?

A lot of us have reached that point. Major League Baseball can takes its gloves, bats and balls and go home. Turn out the lights. The party has been a drag for years, anyway.

Here's a sport that has recently taken more hits than Mike Tyson against Lennox Lewis, and a strike would at least give it a standing eight count.

And guess what? That's life.

The sun will shine in the morning, another CEO will get caught cooking the books, and we'll continue to watch reruns of Gilligan's Island.

The Major League Baseball Players Association set an Aug. 30 strike date yesterday, apparently trying to put pressure on both the players and owners to reach a new labor agreement or risk another work stoppage, the ninth since 1972.

But enough is enough. Go ahead, pull the plug.

It would be just another blotch on the record of a game that can no longer draw young fans even at new stadiums, or find a commissioner who can lead them out of this funk. The TV ratings are low compared with the monster product of the NFL, and the game itself has the tempo of an old big snail.

But yet, all these knuckleheads can talk about is a possible strike. What both sides don't realize is that the average fan can't relate to such huge money issues as revenue sharing and the luxury tax, a 50 percent levy imposed on every dollar a team spends over a pre-set payroll.

The owners have made some minor concessions, raising the threshold from $98 million to just over $100 million per team and agreeing to phase in the tax on the highest-spending clubs, but the union has countered with a plan that would not kick in until a franchise reaches about $139 million in annual payroll.

The New York Yankees would likely be the only team affected by the players' proposal for the first few years of the agreement. But the owners want more teams, and more money involved. The players association says thanks, but no thanks, because that would create a salary cap.

Oooo, what nasty words. Salary cap.

But MLB had better get used to it in some capacity if the sport is to survive. There is a cap in the NBA and in the NFL, and they aren't struggling as much. Apparently, there is some truth to baseball commissioner Bud Selig's claim that the sport is in an economic crisis, and that contraction is more than just a threat.

Four years ago, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks were born. Now, MLB is about to kill franchises.

But these talks should be more than about money. How about fans? That would be new, wouldn't it? Those in lower market cities have to get tired of seeing their teams out of contention before the season even starts every year. There have been NFL fans who have complained about the cap causing identity problems in cities because the players don't stay there for an extended period of time, but there is a buzz in almost every NFL city when training camp starts because almost every team has a shot.

Ask fans in St. Louis, Baltimore, Tennessee and Boston. Ask them in Cleveland for 2002.

In contrast, the 162 regular-game baseball season is nothing more than an exhibition to find out who will play the Yankees in the postseason. Seven clubs began the season with payrolls of more than $100 million. The Yankees were at $164 million on Opening Day, and are currently at $171 million.

The players association is contending that revenue sharing and a luxury tax would decrease the number of teams spending big money in the free-agent market, but the average player salary in the big leagues is $2.3 million.

Boy, doesn't that make your heart bleed?

Now, listen to this: If the players walk out and the season is not completed, they would lose 16.9 percent of their base salary. That means Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez would only make only about $18 million of his $21 million salary. A player at the $200,000 minimum would lose about $34,000.

Gosh, depression is about to set in. Let's take up a collection.

Fans have been letting MLB know that it's no longer the kingpin sport for years. On network television in 2001, the NFL drew a 10.1 rating for its regular-season games compared with 2.6 for MLB. In the playoffs, the NFL drew a 17.8 rating compared with 6.1 for MLB. For their showcase events, a 40.4 share watched the Super Bowl compared with 15.7 for the World Series, including a 23.5 rating for the seventh game.

Baseball needs to find younger fans. According to a recent survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, 22 percent of children ages 12 to 18 consider themselves to be avid baseball fans compared with 38 percent for both the NBA and NFL. But these things don't seem to matter.

Greed is the issue, and the fans are taken for granted. There have been eight negotiations and eight stoppages. The most damaging was in 1994-1995, when a strike lasted 232 days.

But Cal Ripken's all-time consecutive-games record in 1995 and the home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 breathed some life back into the sport. Ripken and McGwire, though, have retired. Baseball has never fully recovered from the last strike, and another blow could be devastating.

It's hard to take sides, even harder to feel sympathy. Major-league sports have gone corporate, and its players have gone Hollywood. The only reason baseball struggles is because the rich haven't learned how to share.

That's why if MLB goes on strike, there won't be a lot of sympathy here, just a reach for the selector to watch another episode of Gilligan's Island. Or catch a movie. Or go to church.

Life goes on despite the sport burying itself. It's been that way for years.

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