Henry on shaky ground with payroll complaints

ON BASEBALL

February 22, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When Boston Red Sox owner John Henry came out in favor of an NFL-style salary cap recently, his comments raised an intriguing question.

Where has this guy been the past 10 years? Baseball owners have been seeking payroll relief since the early 1990s, when their heavy-handed attempt to force a salary cap on the players resulted in the longest and most damaging work stoppage in the history of big-time professional sports.

They eventually came up with a new method to limit runaway spending, using debt limits and stiff luxury taxes to force free-spending teams to act in a more financially responsible manner.

Most teams have done just that, as evidenced by the soft free-agent market the past two years. The major exceptions have been the New York Yankees - the clear target of Henry's displeasure - and Henry's Red Sox, who are under tremendous pressure to keep up with their chief American League East rival.

Henry was understandably frustrated when the Yankees succeeded in trading for superstar Alex Rodriguez, considering that the Red Sox made an unsuccessful play for A-Rod in December, but Henry was the wrong guy to go on a financial insanity rant.

He can seek some cover by claiming that the Red Sox were unable to make the trade because they were holding out for a more economical arrangement with Rodriguez and the Texas Rangers, but what we have here is a clear case of situational self-righteousness.

This is the team, after all, that sparked the last salary spike when it traded for Pedro Martinez and signed him to a record six-year, $75 million contract in 1997 (admittedly before Henry bought the team).

The Dodgers soon broke the $100 million barrier when they signed Kevin Brown, and the Rangers eventually pushed the salary spiral to the height of economic irresponsibility with Rodriguez's $252 million deal in 2000.

Which is what brought everyone to this strange crossroads in baseball's most historic rivalry.

The Red Sox should have been content to acquire superstar pitcher Curt Schilling and top closer Keith Foulke after coming within an extra-inning home run of knocking the Yankees out of the postseason last year. The play for Rodriguez raised the stakes and forced the Yankees to look beyond their scramble to replace lost starting pitchers Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells.

Perhaps Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would have instructed his front office to contact the Rangers about Rodriguez after third baseman Aaron Boone went down with a severe knee injury - regardless of anything the Red Sox did over the winter - but it seems more likely the Yankees were reacting to the lingering speculation that the deal between the Red Sox and Rangers might be resurrected this spring.

Don't misunderstand. There is something very wrong with baseball's economic system if one team has the ability to spend twice as much on talent as any other, but the Red Sox are not in any position to get high-handed about it.

The sport certainly would have more parity with an NFL-style salary cap, but that has been a dead issue for a decade. The players' union agreed to the new restraints in the last labor agreement and is regretting it.

Henry needs to stand down, and the owners need to give their latest cost-containment effort time to work. They just might prove it is possible to level the playing field without scorching the earth.

Flash from past

The BALCO steroid investigation smells more and more like the cocaine scandal of the mid-1980s that created a huge credibility crisis for the sport and prompted commissioner Peter Ueberroth to discipline 20 well-known players.

So far, no players have been named in the BALCO mess, but one of the central figures in the scandal - Barry Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson - reportedly has told federal agents that he distributed steroids to a number of major league players.

It figures to be only a matter of time before the names of those players begin to seep out, which could re-ignite public outrage over the game's relatively soft steroid policy and force commissioner Bud Selig to take a more proactive approach to the problem.

There is little he can do to beef up the existing steroid program before the next round of collective bargaining, so the players identified as steroid users probably would not face significant discipline from Major League Baseball. But Selig would have the power to suspend any player convicted of trafficking in illegal substances or giving false testimony to a grand jury.

NL Central arms race

The Chicago Cubs can only hope they have fended off a stiff winter challenge from the Houston Astros, who finished only a game behind them in the NL Central last year.

The return of four-time Cy Young Award-winner Greg Maddux doesn't entirely offset the additions of Pettitte and Clemens in Houston, but the Cubs did not need nearly as much help in their starting rotation.

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