The Baseball Strike, 15 Years Later: What Was That About?

We all know what Lord Acton said about being doomed to repeat history, so while the fifteenth anniversary of the 1994 MLB Strike (August 12) is still fresh in everyone's mind, let's do some reviewing:

Looking back, the casualty list seems staggering: nearly 950 major league games and more than $800 million in revenue -- about $580 million of the owners' money and almost $230 million in players' salaries -- were lost. For the first time in 90 years, there was no postseason.

The issue, said Commissioner Bud Selig, was "competitive balance" -- the idea that the so-called "big market" teams were dominating the so-called " small market" teams.

But "competitive balance" was just a distraction. By 1993, the Yankees hadn't won a World Series in 15 years, and the Mets had won just one (1986) in 24 seasons. The Dodgers, the biggest market team in the West, had taken only one World Series (1988) from 1965 through 1993; the Angels, with whom they shared a colossal fan base, had never won a Series at all.

In fact, the previous two World Series had been won by the Toronto Blue Jays, who, as people in the Players Association shrewdly noted, "were labeled a small market team when they lost and a big market team when they won."

The 1994 strike interrupted what was, by the standards of previous years, one of the most competitive seasons baseball had ever seen: of 28 teams, just two had a won-lost percentage of over .600 and none were under .400. Baseball had been evolving towards equality for decades, and the advent of free agency in 1976 had sped that evolution along,

The real issue -- surprise! -- was money. The average player's salary in 1994 was $1.2 million, and the owners wanted that figure reduced. Or stated another way, the owners wanted to lower the cost of competing among themselves. Mr. Selig and the owners thought they could force the union to agree to a salary cap. The player's association, led by Marvin Miller's successor, Donald Fehr, was having none of it -- the free market was working just fine for them.

What poisoned the negotiations was the atmosphere of mistrust that had developed in the late 1980s when the owners colluded, in violation of the Basic Agreement, to hold down salaries by, among other tactics, not bidding on free agents. As it turned out, the arbitrators agreed. In 1990, after three rulings against them, the owners were forced to pay a whopping $280 million.

Fay Vincent, Bud Selig's predecessor, was quoted as saying, "The Union basically doesn't trust the ownership because collusion was a $280 million theft by Bud Selig and [Chicago White Sox owner] Jerry Reinsdorf." That judgment probably cost Mr. Vincent his job. In 1992, acceding to economist Andrew Zimbalist, "The owners got rid of Vincent precisely so he wouldn't disrupt their assault on the players, and, in a rare display of candor, said as much publicly."

In the absence of real baseball, the sports press turned strike-related stories into their daily staple. There was much to work with. In January 1, 1995, Congress, with nothing better to do, introduced no less than five bills aimed at ending the strike. They struck out on five pitches. On January 13, the owners authorized the use of what they called "replacement players." The union called them by their traditional names, scabs. Don Fehr cannily asked exactly who the replacement players were replacing, since the owners claimed to still have the players under contract.

Baseball historians are still divided on the fairness of Sonia Sotomayor's decision. ESPN's Peter Gammons probably summed it up best: She "didn't necessarily save baseball, she saved the owners from themselves ... Sotomayor forced the game to resume and charged that they bargain in real faith, baseball under Selig went from $1.3 billion to a $7.5 billion business."

The negative effects of the 1994 strike, though, lingered on in the suspicion and hostility the union harbored for the baseball owners, an attitude which did much to prevent the two sides from formulating an effective drug testing policy before one was finally forced on them by Congressional pressure. Not until 2003 did labor and management finally come together on a drug policy, and both sides - and the fans as well - continue to pay the price for that procrastination with every new steroid revelation.

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