Zimbalist on baseball's balderdash, mendacity, greed

March 23, 2003|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy, by Andrew Zimbalist. Brookings Institution Press. 224 pages. $24.95.

If history is any guide, the cracking of bats that will punctuate Opening Day at Camden Yards a week from tomorrow will amount to an all-clear signal for fans to take their place in the bleachers and forget all that messy talk about strikes and contraction that loomed darkly last season.

This is unfortunate. For, as Andrew Zimbalist demonstrates in May the Best Team Win, the grand old game's troubles did not evaporate in the warmth generated by last year's last-minute contract settlement by the team owners and players.

Rather, says Zimbalist, an economist and one of the nation's pre-eminent authorities on baseball's balderdash, structural flaws remain and will, unless repaired, continue to endanger the game.

But all is not hopeless, says the good professor from Smith College, whose clear-headed analyses have, in the past, bedeviled the mendacious lords of baseball (Baseball and Billions, 1992), the nation's sticky-fingered stadium builders and their elected enablers (Sports, Jobs and Taxes, 1997), and the profiteers of college sports (Unpaid Professionals, 1999).

Solutions, he writes, can be found to baseball's interlocking puzzles of competitive imbalance, spiraling ticket costs and drooping popularity.

In fact, he says, salvation may be as simple as stripping away the economic insulation that has shielded the sport from its own self-destructive behavior: its dubious claim to monopoly authority.

"Absent competitive pressures, arrogance, laxity, and inefficiency are bred," Zimbalist writes.

Baseball has long assumed it is immune from the crisscrossing lines of supply and demand by virtue of a 1922 Supreme Court decision. That ruling asserted that baseball was not really "interstate commerce" in the way meant by the makers of antitrust law.

Subsequent rulings have narrowed the decision. Lower courts have split on whether the exemption applies generally to the business of baseball or specifically to the rights of players to switch teams. Some scholars have looked at the case law and concluded that the exemption has already been revoked. And Congress may even be ready to take up the challenge, as critics have urged for decades.

"It is no longer a foregone conclusion that Congress will remain inert when it comes to baseball," he writes.

That may be wishful thinking, but Zimbalist thinks we'd be better off if the national pastime were forced to compete like virtually every other business. Formally revoking the antitrust exemption would force the sport to defend its excesses in court, he says.

Better yet, Congress could break apart the American and National leagues, setting them up as competitors that cooperate only in the scheduling of post-season play.

Competitive balance? Another team or two in New York will dethrone the Yankees overnight. Ticket prices going up again? Not when the cross-town rival drops his. Cities held hostage to threatened team relocations? Not if a competing league is willing to play in that old stadium.

In laying out his case, Zimbalist offers a whirlwind tour of baseball chicanery. An entire chapter is devoted to the game's persistent and, in Zimbalist's view, dishonest cries of poverty. For example, he compares the dire numbers baseball provided Congress last year with the rosier figures revealed in documents prepared for prospective buyers of franchises. Another chapter torpedoes the widely discredited claims of "economic impact" by stadium boosters.

Though concise and coherent, this is not light reading. There is more regression analysis than character development. Think of it as a Federalist Papers for sports.

But anyone who holds an opinion on the state of the game, or fears its demise, owes it to him- or herself to take Professor Zimbalist's 224-page class.

Jon Morgan has covered sports news and business for The Sun since 1992. He is the author of two books: Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL, and Gaining a Yard: the Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium.

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