Contrary to reports, the 28 baseball owners did not pile out of a
single tiny Volkswagen upon arriving for a meeting at The Breakers
hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., last week. The rest of the week's
events did, however, deserve the accompaniment of a circus
calliope, the official musical instrument of Major League
As it was becoming less likely that the season would start on
time with real major leaguers, owners and players made no effort
whatsoever to end the seven-month-long players' strike. In fact,
the two sides did not meet for eight days.
The owners briefly stopped chirping about the sky falling on
their industry long enough to expand it by two more clubs, adding
the overly polysyllabic Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil
Rays at the base price of $130 million each. They did so only
after a last-minute attempt to shake down their new partners for
another $45 million failed. Welcome to the club, boys.
The drawn-out dispute between players and owners succeeded in
running out of the game the biggest sporting attraction on the
planet; fed-up Michael Jordan decided he didn't want to be a
baseball player anymore. To much less fanfare -- but with
greater insult to the game -- neither did three replacement
players in the New York Mets' camp, who bolted to return to
their previous jobs.
March 20, 1995
Doug Corbett, the 42-year-old pitching coach at Jacksonville
University who last pitched in the big leagues in 1987, signed a
minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves one morning, threw
two scoreless innings in an exhibition game two hours later and
then was excused from camp for two days so he could join his
college team on a road trip to Western Kentucky.
Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, welcome to the
Greatest Joke on Earth.
The worst part of all this is that neither the owners nor the
players honestly care enough about the game to do something about
it. Sure, both sides will tell you they want a settlement. But at
the same time each side is determined not only to come out of this
the winner but also to leave its adversary humiliated. To that
effect both have adopted long-term strategies that spit in the
face of the integrity of the 162-game season and all the lovelorn
fans amazingly still eager to buy tickets.
The owners are content to wait until the players miss enough
paychecks (beginning with the first one, due April 15) to pressure
their executive director, Donald Fehr, into making a deal. The
players' union would rather win in court than negotiate a
settlement, and this week the National Labor Relations Board
(NLRB) is expected to agree with it that the owners have bargained
in bad faith. Should the NLRB then succeed in gaining an
injunction against the owners in federal court, the strike could
be over (Fehr has indicated the players would return to work under
the cover of such an injunction, which would require the owners to
operate under the terms of baseball's old collective bargaining
agreement), and a lockout could ensue (the owners won't play ball
without a new agreement).
But an injunction would be good news since it would spare us the
travesty of the freak show known as replacement baseball, where
the crowds are small and lifeless, and the play is unremarkable
except for the lack of speed, power and quality pitching.
It also might spare the Seattle Mariners a hefty clubhouse
catering bill. Fans kept hearing how hungry scabs were to play,
but this is ridiculous. The replacement Mariners scarfed down
chips, ice cream and cheese at such an alarming rate in the
Arizona Faux League that Seattle manager Lou Piniella, upon
noticing the bulging waistlines, ordered lunchtime rations of half
a sandwich and a bowl of soup.
Good thing Seattle didn't have Matt Stark in camp. The
275-pounder, who was replacing Don Mattingly at first base for the
New York Yankees, accidentally crushed a metal folding chair in
the clubhouse simply by sitting on it. He also retaliated against
a heckling fan by loudly calling him ``meat.'' Actually, it was
not clear whether Stark was trading barbs with the paying customer
or trying to order lunch between innings.
Why are the owners and players fostering this travesty? What could
be worth sabotaging a second straight season, turning off a
generation of fans and sinking the game's popularity below that of
lawn bowling? According to a source familiar with the bargaining,
what's keeping the two sides apart has been reduced to this: one
year of free agency eligibility (and compensation to teams that
lose such players) and how to tweak the numbers on a luxury tax.
Fehr and Bud Selig, the replacement commissioner, can go on
forever overemoting their pain and their resolve if they wish, but
the time to compromise is now. Both sides need to accept a
lose-lose solution, and here is one solution that will allow
neither side to claim victory.
Arbitration: gone. Both sides have agreed that this often
unpredictable -- and always expensive -- process can go, and it
Free agency: unrestricted for players with at least three years
of major league service time (516 days). The owners' wish for at
least four years is too much, given that the players will have
agreed to eliminate arbitration. Still, the owners would have
control over a player's salary during his first three years in
the majors (beyond an established minimum), a long enough time
to decide whether to lock up stars to multiyear contracts in the
successful manner of the Cleveland Indians.
Luxury tax: 40% on team payrolls above $45 million. It should be
aimed at the rich rather than at the middle class, as the owners
have done by asking that the threshold be set at the average
payroll ($40.7 million). Rich people don't blink when told to
cough up a luxury tax on an automobile or a yacht. However, it
has been learned that the owners are divided on the issue of the
percentage. One club executive said last Friday, ``We would
never go for anything less than 50 percent.'' Another owner said
on the same day that he was going to recommend to ownership that
it ``go below 50 percent'' in its offer to the players this week.
A five-year collective bargaining agreement: Give the luxury tax
a minimum three-year trial. If the players' portion of the gross
revenue falls below 55% after three years, dump the tax. If it
rises above that level, the tax remains in effect for two more
years. As much as we would love to see a long- term agreement, no
one knows for certain if the tax is going to work. After five
years, everyone should know.
The SI plan could take effect on Opening Day of the 1995 season.
But where is the dealmaker to make something like this happen?
That's the problem. We have seen no sign of such a person.
It's not William Usery, the overwhelmed federal mediator who last
week called the dispute ``almost embarrassing, and it's
ridiculous.'' He doesn't have the juice in this fight, especially
since the union has little use for him.
It's not Fehr, who has been driven by a loathing of the owners
ever since he made a concession to them on arbitration in 1985,
only to have them enter into collusion the following three years.
As terrible as collusion was, Fehr must get beyond it, as well as
the burden of trying to retain the undefeated record of his
mentor, Marvin Miller.
The dealmaker is not among the rank-and-file, Fehr's obedient
sheep who may not fully understand why they are losing time off
their careers and gaining a reputation for insolence. (It would
help the union's image if a minimum-salaried player or two joined
Fehr in front of the TV cameras instead of his team of
hardly-in-peril, $4 million-per-year all-stars, none of whom have
applied for food stamps.) The line going around training camps is,
there's one sure way to tell a replacement player: He's nice to
the fans. The players' association is not your basic labor union,
nor does it act as such. The players refused to support other
striking unions (those of umpires, newspapermen, stadium ushers,
for example) and would not deign to walk a picket line themselves.
This is a rare strike by the wealthy, so why should fans care?
It's not Selig, who is acting commissioner even though he is the
owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. His team's survival may depend
on the outcome of these negotiations (and, more important, on
better management). Selig is tireless and, for an owner, has a
rare respect for the game, but he is too involved with pushing his
``I don't think there'd be a strike right now if there was a
commissioner, assuming he or she was independent,'' says former
commish Peter Ueberroth. ``It would be over within 24 hours.''
It is not Colorado Rocky owner Jerry McMorris, the mostly
well-intentioned moderate who speaks for a fractured group that is
unified only on the matter of greed. That avarice was never more
evident than on March 8, when the owners angered Jerry Colangelo,
general partner of the Diamondbacks, and Vince Naimoli, general
partner of the Devil Rays, by hinting they wanted to increase the
fee charged to both teams from $130 million to $175 million. ``He
was on the verge of walking out,'' Diamondback president Richard
Dozer said of Colangelo.
The owners backed down and settled for the $130 million, as well
as $5 million from each expansion team's take of the central fund
(much of it national broadcast fees) in each of their first five
years of operation, beginning in 1998.
Much about the expansion process underscored what's wrong with
ownership. While Arizona and Tampa Bay will immediately become
high-revenue clubs with a lot going for them (though certainly not
that hideous monolith of a dome in St. Petersburg where the Rays
will play their home games), Phoenix and Tampa- St. Petersburg
would have served a better purpose by swallowing the weakest of
existing franchises, thus reducing by two clubs the need for all
this labor upheaval. Of course, relocation would not bring owners
their windfall expansion fees.
Moreover, there were the tired team colors -- both new clubs'
logos incorporate some of the ``hot'' hues of black, purple and
something approximate to turquoise -- and the awkward nicknames
that are typical of a sport with awful marketing strategies. In
fact, the name Devil Rays was greeted with such resounding
displeasure that the team immediately announced a phone-in poll,
allowing Tampa Bay area fans to vote on changing the name to the
equally horrendous Manta Rays. That possibility prompted the team
to shamelessly advise the public in a newspaper ad to ``grab''
shirts and caps with the Devil Ray logo ``because if the vote goes
to Manta, you'll own the collector's item of the century.'' Great.
Alas, early returns on more than 10,000 calls left Devil Rays
``the overwhelming favorite,'' according to Naimoli.
At least the owners didn't select an expansion group from
northern Virginia that appeared to find inspiration for its
prospective team's name from the marquee of a low-rent strip
joint: Virginia Fury. That group has two or three years to come
to its senses before another round of expansion, with its
further lowering of the pitching common denominator, is
inflicted upon us.
In the meantime the aforementioned Virginia group and another from
the same state are interested in buying the Pittsburgh Pirates, as
is Pittsburgh investor John J. Rigas. And Ueberroth wants to
return to baseball by purchasing the California Angels. Baseball,
despite the cluckings of its own stewards, remains a sound
investment in the right market with the right management.
``If someone handed me one third of the teams in baseball, I
wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole,'' says Colangelo, who
jumped at the chance to own the Phoenix market, as he does with
the NBA's Suns. He's getting in at the game's worst time, hopeful
that it can replicate the NBA's turnaround. ``I'm naive enough to
think it can happen,'' he says.
On the first day of real big league baseball games this season --
whenever that may be -- owners ought to open the gates for free,
and players should donate their salaries for the day to charity.
Let those overtures serve as only the beginning to a long
restoration of baseball's public image. Until then, there is no
good reason to care about major league baseball.