O.K., what's the pitch?

Whatever, it's a slow windup, with the players eager to start spring training while management stalls
March 08, 1976

There is only one thing to be said in favor of the dispute between major league players and management that has delayed spring training and threatens further disruption: the quality of the rhetoric is superior to that of other labor confrontations.

One high-level executive sniffs, "These doggone players have a misguided view of themselves because they've never lived in the real world. Of course, they are going to have to accept some restraints on their movement. And they had better learn quick that if you like scrambled eggs for breakfast, it's not a good idea to eat the chicken."

Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association, says, "I'm bewildered. Here these owners are with one hand in a vise and they're yelling at us, 'We're gonna fix you good.' "

Bill Veeck, the very maverick new owner of the Chicago White Sox, says, "We'll get out of this. What it boils down to is: management needs somebody to manage and the players need somebody to pick up the tab." (When Veeck announced he was going to open the White Sox camp to his minor-leaguers, Clark Griffith, vice-president of the Minnesota Twins, remarked, "If we thought this was the act of a rational person, we'd worry about it.")

A general manager talks fervently of the importance of "bringing the players to gaff," forgetting that for the first time ever, the players think they are now in position to bring the owners to gaff.

Charlie Finley says, "The handwriting is on the wall, but these athletes can't read." Or can they?

Yet however good the talk, baseball needs action. It is to be hoped it will come suddenly—as it did in pro basketball last month after similar haggling.

The baseball fuss does not have the smell of a long dispute. The players are eager to go to spring training. And the owners would have to have a severe death wish to continue the torture much longer, partly because all the players are contracted to play this year, which means the teams are committed to pay them.

Here's how the impasse developed. Last year an arbitrator ruled that Los Angeles Pitcher Andy Messersmith was correct in his insistence that he should become a free agent by simply playing out his option year—that one year beyond the length of his contract. Traditionally, management has insisted that a player is bound to a team for life, unless the team decides to trade him, release him or sell him. That is the reserve clause. Owners appealed the decision to a court in Kansas City, where the judge upheld Messersmith. The owners are appealing some more. So there is a chance—a remote one—that at any moment a court could rule in favor of the owners and, presto, everything would be back to square one with the reserve clause intact.

The Messersmith decision means a lot of players could be free next year to make the best deal for themselves with any team they can, after playing out this season as their option year. Players think the whole situation is terrific; management doesn't.

The players are not on strike. Regarding the reserve clause, Miller says they do not want anything not already upheld in the Messersmith case. But management locked the players out of the camps pending a compromise, or at least pending some movement toward a compromise. At week's end the owners proposed that an eight-year major-leaguer would be free to play out his option the ninth year. (With the average major league career being 4.1 years, nine years should cover it.) Without such firm ties, management sees these evils:

Players would flit from team to team, getting increasingly astronomical salaries and alienating fans. Clubs would not be able to meet expenses (developing players costs each team about $1.5 million a year), and some will go broke. Competition will die because the best players will gravitate to Los Angeles and New York.

To each of these fears, the players say, "Phooey." They insist they would not jump from team to team any more than they now are traded by the owners, which is a lot; that salaries would not go up all that much except for the superstars, who deserve more anyway; that few owners can legitimately plead poverty; and that all the good players would not go to the two glamour cities because many of them like it where they are; plus, no good player wants to move to a team where he will end up sitting on the bench watching even better players perform.

Are there any ways out of this jungle? Many. Predictably, the best solution is likely the easiest. The owners could accept what the courts are ramming down their throats. Even Lee MacPhail, American League president, admits, "We're trying to swim against the social current. We've got to change." The trouble is that for years, with everything running the owners' way, they turned their backs when Miller would bring up the idea of important modifications in the reserve system. Suddenly, the trump is held by the players. Or is it a gun?

Privately, many top-level baseball people are saying they can live without the reserve clause. Some have even said it in public. Veeck says he has been against the clause since 1941, when he wrote a letter to Judge Landis, baseball's first commissioner, saying the system was "morally and legally indefensible," and got a letter back in which Landis noted, "Somebody once said a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and your letter proves him to be a wizard." Phil Wrigley, president of the Chicago Cubs, says baseball does not need the clause. Buzzy Bavasi, president of San Diego, says, "I think without the reserve clause baseball will be fun again. If I need a shortstop, I'll decide who the best shortstop is and go after him."

The general thinking is that without the reserve clause or with serious modifications of it, the 5% of the players who are superstars will get much more money. The 20% of the "fairly decent" players will get a bit more than they do now, and the remaining 75% will not benefit or may even lose ground. Says Bavasi, "I think a lot of $25,000 journeyman players are going to go out on the free market and find they are worth $23,000."

Another solution is for the players to agree to waive the rights won in the Messersmith case. John Gaherin, chief negotiator for baseball's 24 owners, insists the players, in fact, "have a duty to do so." Miller contends the union cannot abridge the new player freedoms because it would be open to lawsuits from individual members. But Tom Seaver of the Mets says, "The Players Association is willing to give up some of what it has won in the courts if the owners will also give up something."

Perhaps to prevent bidding wars a ceiling could be put on the total amount each team can spend on player salaries. This is a very good idea—except each of the owners whispers that other owners will cheat. Peter Bavasi, San Diego's general manager, suggests a simple chart for salaries, with pay based on performance. Veeck thinks players might be bound to a team for seven years—including minor league time—so clubs can recover player-development costs. After that, he says, let the market work its will. Players seem to think four or five years of fidelity to one team is more realistic.

It is possible that spring training could go ahead with the proviso that an agreement must be reached by, say, Sept. 1, or the season would then be suspended. This would buy time. As Cincinnati's Johnny Bench says, "The Players Association and the owners have waited too long before getting down to negotiations."

Meanwhile, Messersmith is a man without a team. Both league presidents have instructed clubs not to deal for Messersmith pending final disposition of his case. Many teams obviously would like the services of a 20-game winner, but some are afraid to hear the price. Last year Messersmith made about $120,000. In a free market he would probably get $250,000.

Even if the reserve clause is completely dumped, there may be some minuses for players. With operating costs going up, there likely would be fewer farm teams, and thus fewer baseball-playing opportunities. And management everywhere is quick to say every team has a number of average players whom they would just as soon see play out their options. This means younger—read, lower paid—players would have better chances of making the majors.

Further, players have a public-relations problem themselves. The average major league baseball salary in 1975 was about $45,000—ranging from Oakland's $60,000 to Montreal's $31,000. That is for less than eight months' work. Plus a pension, $23-a-day meal money, first-class plane tickets, hotels and ground transportation. Although in all fairness, you can't compare playing major league baseball to, say, working for an insurance company—careers are short and uncertain, and to qualify for the job the applicant needs extraordinary skills.

One club that went nowhere last year—and will not this year—paid these salaries to its 25-man roster: three earned the minimum $16,000, two received $17,000, three got $18,000, two made $34,000, two got $40,000, and the rest earned $20,000, $23,000, $24,500, $25,500, $31,000, $32,500, $35,000, $36,500, $42,500, $45,000, $75,000, $90,000 and $125,000. That's $889,500, an average of $35,540.

So while the so-called freedom issue looms large, economics still is the heart of the problem—on both sides. History teaches that when somebody says it's not the money but the principle, it's the money.

PHOTOMarvin Miller told the negotiators he was ready to play baseball, and he drank to that. PHOTOConvened below bubble-gum cards in the Players Association office last Friday, the owners' spokesmen—Lee MacPhail, John Gaherin and Chub Feeney—faced Miller and a sticky time.