Games go on, but economic woes hardly cured

ON BASEBALL

September 01, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

NEW YORK -- The new labor agreement reached by Major League Baseball and the players union signals four years of temporary labor peace, but it does not guarantee a cure for the game's economic problems and does not assure a warm and fuzzy relationship between the players and owners.

What it does is keep the game on the field without a labor-related interruption for the first time since 1972, and it gives the industry a chance to improve competitive balance between the high-revenue and low-revenue franchises.

Release the balloons.

The union, to its credit, did a lot of compromising. There aren't a lot of plums in the new labor agreement for the players, except a large increase in the minimum salary and an assurance from the owners that they will postpone contraction to 2007. Still, it would be overly simplistic to proclaim that the owners finally won a labor dispute -- even if it looks like they did.

It is not, however, difficult to identify some specific winners and losers in the aftermath of Friday's announced settlement, so here goes:

Winner: Commissioner Bud Selig, who finally got to look presidential on Friday when he announced the settlement. Quite a switch from his uncomfortable performance in front of Congress and his suspension of the All-Star Game in Milwaukee (though the All-Star debacle was not his fault). This won't make him a beloved figure, but at least he'll be able to walk through airports again.

Loser: New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was forced to bite his tongue through most of the negotiations even though he and his franchise were being offered up on the alter of competitive balance. The Yankees are the ones who will be doing most of the revenue sharing and paying most of the luxury taxes, so why weren't they represented at the bargaining table? Orioles owner and big-time class-action lawyer Peter Angelos was asked after the settlement was announced if he believed that Steinbrenner would file a lawsuit against baseball.

"I don't know," he answered. "Is George that litigious? I don't think that would be very successful if attempted. Hopefully, that's not something the Yankees would contemplate doing."

Winner: Angelos, whose presence on the bargaining committee completed his evolution from maverick new owner in the last labor dispute to inner-circle power broker in this one. The outcome clearly proved that it's better to have Angelos on your team than off the reservation.

Potential loser: Angelos, who opposes the placement of a major-league team in the Washington/Northern Virginia area. The decision to delay contraction for four years seems certain to force the relocation of the Montreal Expos, who could be auctioned to one of the hungry Washington ownership groups for anywhere from $300 million to $400 million.

Of course, Angelos could turn the Expos' relocation into a win-win situation if he can manipulate the process to lessen the impact on the Orioles and exact a large payment from baseball for withdrawing his opposition to the move.

Winners: D.C. baseball fans, who figure to have two teams to choose from in the relatively near future.

Losers: Non-steroid users. The new drug-testing plan agreed to by both sides does not include any disciplinary action for testing positive during the first two years of the agreement. If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'.

Winners: The game's youngest major-leaguers, since the minimum salary jumps from $200,000 to $300,000 per year. Though that issue didn't get a lot of attention, it was a significant concession from ownership, because there are more than 250 players receiving the minimum. That's an increase in total annual compensation of about $25 million per year.

Losers: Fans planning to buy season tickets in Tampa Bay in 2007.

Winners: The Minnesota Twins and their fans, who no longer have to sweat out the departure of the soon-to-be 2002 American League Central champion. No contraction until 2007 means that there is time to complete the stadium deal that has been percolating for months. Instead of losing the team, Minneapolis soon will experience a baseball renaissance similar to what happened a few years ago in Seattle.

Losers: People who think the Metrodome is a great place for baseball and don't want to pay any new taxes.

Winners: American League West fans, who were in danger of seeing one of the most exciting division races in history wiped out by a strike. Now, they can sit back and wait for a potentially thrilling stretch run, since two of the three teams in contention will play each other every day for the final three weeks of the season.

Losers: The Texas Rangers, who are one of the few teams that could be hit by the new luxury tax, but aren't getting any of the perks that usually come with being one of baseball's biggest-spending clubs. Last time anyone bothered to look, they were preparing to complete their third straight year at the bottom of the American League West standings.

Winner: The Boston Red Sox. Even though they are one of the big spenders targeted in the new agreement, they are impacted far less than the Yankees -- and any Red Sox fan will tell you that anything that hurts the Yankees helps the Red Sox.

Loser: The NFL, which would have had the professional sports playground all to itself in September and most of October if baseball players had gone home for the rest of the season.

Winner: Fox Sports, which would have gotten $300 million in rebates if there had been a season-ending strike, but still would have been hammered by a work stoppage because of the disruption of its primetime schedule in October. All's well that ends well.

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