Pressure on players not to take a strike

ON BASEBALL

August 18, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

The growing outrage over the decision of the Major League Baseball Players Association to set an Aug. 30 strike date only figures to grow as that date approaches, but don't hold your breath waiting for the union to back away from another work stoppage just because of a few million disgruntled fans.

There are plenty of emotional reasons for the players to keep playing through September and October, regardless of the progress of the current set of labor negotiations, not the least of which is the approaching one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The popular wisdom of the moment is that if union director Donald Fehr had a heart, the players would never consider going on strike at such a sensitive time. There is a growing consensus that it is just the willingness of Fehr and a few high-ranking union executives that is preventing the industry from enjoying long-term prosperity and labor peace.

It's never that simple, of course, but Fehr's personality is very much an issue in this and every other labor dispute since he made it his personal mission to protect the gains achieved by the players union under Marvin Miller in the 1970s.

One of the reasons that baseball's union is so much stronger than those of the NFL and NBA is the strong personality of its seemingly fearless leader. Fehr has never shied away from appearing the villain if he felt that the issue was important enough to fight over.

The next two weeks will tell whether he really feels that a luxury tax on the game's giant payrolls is onerous enough to justify shutting down the sport at a time when the national perspective has been changed so dramatically by the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing war on terror. We'll have to wait until Aug. 30 to find that out.

If history gives any indication, the players will go on strike if the owners stand firm in their desire to even the economic playing field (and slow salary growth) with heavy revenue sharing and huge luxury taxes on the game's richest clubs.

The union has a huge public relations problem, because the average player salary is nearly $2.4 million a year and the highest-paid player - Alex Rodriguez - is guaranteed enough money over his 10-year contract to buy his own team. Joe Fan, who just lost part of his retirement savings in the stock market downturn, doesn't want to hear Fehr lecture him on free-market philosophy.

Joe Fan would love to go to arbitration and get his salary doubled, but it just doesn't happen that way in the real world.

The owners, who have quite a bit of explaining to do themselves, can only hope that the public and political pressure on the players will cause them to cave in and accept a new economic order.

There's a first time for everything.

Palmeiro eyes 600 homers

Former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro isn't shy about his desire to follow Barry Bonds up the game's all-time home run list, and the Texas Rangers' slugger doesn't hesitate to predict that he eventually will join the exclusive 600-homer club.

"Oh yeah," Palmeiro said. "I'm confident I can get there. I know what I can do. Is it a long shot? Maybe. But I know what I'm capable of doing, and I believe I can hit 600 home runs."

Some might call that cocky, but you've got to give Palmeiro - who turns 38 next month - credit for being refreshingly honest. He has 480 career home runs and would have to play into his 40s to reach 600, but it isn't entirely out of the question. He keeps himself in excellent shape and enjoys the game so much that he'll play as long as he possibly can.

Of course, by the time he gets to that milestone, Sammy Sosa will likely be waiting for him along with Bonds and the three Hall of Famers - Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays - he joined last weekend.

"I think I have four good years left in me," Palmeiro said. "I plan on playing at least four, maybe five more years. I think big. Why not think big?"

On deck: Mays

The next big home run challenge for Bonds is his godfather, Mays, who ranks third on the all-time home run list with 660. Bonds should eclipse that number in 2004 if he stays healthy, but he isn't quite sure how he feels about the possibility.

"Yeah, but it's still easier said than done when [it's] somebody you looked up to your career, your whole lifetime," Bonds told reporters. "It's really hard to surpass someone that you put so high on your pedestal. You always want to cherish that moment.

Mays might be the greatest all-around player in the history of the game, a distinction that Bonds insists would not change if he was passed on the all-time home run list by his godson.

"I don't want to be compared to him," he said. "Willie has his status in the game, and that's where it should stand. Barry Bonds' mark should be Barry Bonds' mark. We're different players. We're all different individuals and people should respect are own individuality."

Class act

Aaron, the home run king, once predicted that Bonds might break his all-time record, and he apparently isn't dreading the possibility.

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