Game tied

August 31, 2002

WITH ITS 11th-hour players' contract settlement yesterday, Major League Baseball gave its fans another memorable moment: the game's first contract in three decades without a work stoppage.

Owners and players touted it as historic. The agreement shifts more cash from the richest teams to the poorest - a positive step, but likely insufficient to bring the sport the true competitive balance it badly needs.

That remains difficult. Let's hope this contract's four years are used to come up with a more fundamental restructuring, one involving a National Football League-style salary cap.

This time, bargaining was relatively amicable, due to the damage done by the 1994 strike, the impending Sept. 11 anniversary and players' eye-popping average salary of $2.4 million. Fan sentiment is so negative that it even dampened the parties' considerable avarice.

The contract dents, not solves, baseball's core problem: wide income disparities between big-market teams - particularly those controlling their TV broadcasts, like the New York Yankees - and many smaller-market teams, like the Kansas City Royals. (Tribune, the parent company of this newspaper, also owns the Chicago Cubs and the TV station that carries most of their games.)

As a result, baseball has essentially become a game of everyone else vs. the Yankees and perhaps a few other teams, with most clubs' prospects dashed long before Opening Day.

Thus the contract's best aspects are expanded revenue sharing and luxury taxes - levies on high-payroll teams. In the short term, only the Yankees and a few other teams will be taxed. But players fear it will slow their salary growth; we certainly hope so. We also hope the poorer teams actually spend these revenue infusions on players.

Also billed as a breakthrough is player drug testing. The regimen is not as weak as first proposed by the union. But owners and players have benefited from illegal steroid use and mainly did this for public relations. Look for all sorts of escape clauses and continuing controversy.

So this contract doesn't firmly fix some of baseball's major problems. The game's not over, but tied.

A financial solution would require much bigger steps toward collectivism. With its antitrust exemption, major-league baseball is hardly raw capitalism. It's a business in which every franchise would benefit from more, not less, competitive balance. Check out the health of the NFL, based on a national TV contract providing parity.

Unfortunately, most baseball revenues are local, creating the game's imbalances. Still, that doesn't bar baseball from moving much closer to an NFL financial structure.

In the meantime, it's testimony to baseball's magic that many remain interested. Down after the 1994 strike, the game offered up home run records, Cal Ripken's streak and a stirring World Series last year. But a recent poll found its recovered popularity back to its post-strike level.

At least three decades of greed and stupidity have brought baseball to this point. The game hasn't been destroyed yet, but more fundamental changes are needed to ensure owners and players still don't figure out a way to do that.

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