Strikes and Balls


Why does it always happen in baseball? Two reasons. First, the Major League Baseball Players Association is a real union, not a waffling bunch of wussies like their company-union counterparts in football and basketball. No player has ever crossed the picket line, and none would have had they struck this time.

The second reason is that their opposition among the baseball owners is exempt from antitrust laws, which means, in practical terms, that the owners don’t really negotiate. They can simply present a list of demands to the players and stall with the implicit threat of declaring an impasse and imposing their own conditions.

That’s the way every baseball negotiation has gone since the first work stoppage in 1972: The players ask for the status quo, while the owners demand givebacks based on claims of economic woe supported by figures nobody else gets to see. You’d think the local sports press would, by now, have acquired some insight into the business of sports, but if the recent baseball negotiations prove anything, it’s that media have made giant strides in reverse.

The spitting began a couple of years ago when Commissioner Bud Selig introduced a “Blue Ribbon Panel” to study and report on Major League Baseball’s economic situation. What should have been noticed at the outset was that there were no potential dissenting voices among the panelists, which certainly was no coincidence as all were selected and approved by Major League Baseball. Not only were there no experts selected by the players, there also were none from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), the group that verifies all baseball statistics for the Hall of Fame. “Apparently,” says Doug Pappas, editor of the SABR newsletter Between the Lines, “we’re only safe to use on issues that don’t involve money.”

Not everyone bought the panel’s conclusions, namely that baseball was suffering from a lack of revenue sharing between so-called large and small market teams. (Both Forbes and SABR scoffed at the panel’s numbers.) But enough did, including The New York Times, who swallowed MLB’s position hook, line and sinker in its editorial pages. The rest of the media either went along or, like the Daily News‘s Mike Lupica, were full of pent-up resentment and ready to jump on any excuse to slam the players. During the negotiations, Lupica, who started his career as an “alternative” sportswriter for the Boston Phoenix, metamorphosed into Dick Young. His favorite refrain, “It’s all about money,” failed to address the basic question of why so many players with long-term contracts, players who stood to gain nothing and had plenty to lose by striking, were willing to hold out in order to secure the same rights they had enjoyed for the next generation.

In other words, as usual, the press simply refused to accord the Players Association the respect of being called a union. After all, the Players Association were winners, in fact the biggest winners in the history of unions. How could they be a union when everyone knows that unions are about blue-collar issues like pensions and work safety? The idea that a group of young men could become fabulously wealthy by adhering to the principles of their union drove an amazing number of commentators to fury. (They, of course, if given the chance, would have played the game for nothing.)

What should have been driving fans to fury was the nonsensical chant of “competitive balance, competitive balance” that was funneled through the press directly from the commissioner’s office. After years of irresponsible expansion fueled by the greed for fat entry fees, it suddenly became the moral imperative of the commissioner’s office to see that Oakland, Minnesota, and St. Louis be able to compete with so-called big-market franchises. No one noticed that in fact these franchises were near or at the top of their divisions and had been competing quite well for several years on their own limited income.

Bud Selig’s long face became as omnipresent on ESPN as Barry Bonds hitting one into the bay. Selig pleaded for the fans of small-revenue teams such as Tampa Bay and Montreal without mentioning that the fans in Chicago, the third largest market in baseball, hadn’t seen a World Series winner from their teams in more than 170 combined seasons. A snowed press, bleeding with Selig for the fortunes of Kansas City and Pittsburgh, never asked how, in such an unfair world, two expansion teams had been able to win the World Series in a time frame when baseball’s biggest or second biggest market team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, had been unable to win even one. Or why the World Series-less California Angels, 40 miles down the road from the Dodgers, were supposed to be a small market team. Or why the Philadelphia Phillies, the only team in baseball’s fourth largest market—making them, potentially, the biggest market team in all of baseball—had won just a single World Series in a century. Or, more to the point, why the New York Mets, with the same resources as the New York Yankees, have won just a single World Series in four decades.

In short, the issue that very nearly ruined baseball had nothing to do with competitive balance. The NFL, which was held up as the model for baseball, had seen exactly 18 different teams go to the Super Bowl in the previous 21 years; baseball, despite losing the end of the season in 1994, had seen 20 different teams play in the World Series over the same period. Even during the Yankees’ remarkable seven-year run, seven different teams had played in the World Series, while the NFL over the same span could boast just eight different teams in the Super Bowl. That football was somehow more “competitive” than baseball was an illusion fostered by its greater number of playoff berths.

If Selig’s intention was to spread the wealth, he’d have approached the players with a promise that all newly shared revenues would go for players’ salaries and not into the owners’ pockets. This never happened. The real object from the beginning was to sneak through the back door a spending tax that would hold down players’ salaries.

And who was that tax directed at? Why, the Boss himself, who insisted from the start that the new agreement would unfairly penalize him and who, if he does take the issue to court, stands a very good chance of finding a judge who agrees with him. And where will that leave baseball? Right back where it was before all the nonsense of the Blue Ribbon Panel began, only this time stripped of any illusions that Major League Baseball is a self-governing body. Which means that after more than a quarter of a century of being baseball’s Antichrist, George Steinbrenner may actually be the man who ends up saving baseball from itself.

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