Thursday, April 25, 2002

Baseball's future lies in balance

        Fixing baseball is simple enough. You blow it up and begin again. You take the greatest game ever invented and give it a fresh new structure founded on sanity.

        You level the playing field, by bulldozer if necessary, and you afford every team a reasonable chance to dream.

        Anything else is inadequate. Anything else is feeble. Baseball is a game without a middle ground, populated by ancient antagonists occupying entrenched positions.

        It doesn't listen to reason, but to rage.

        Emissaries from Commissioner Bud Selig visited Cincinnati Wednesday as part of a national propaganda tour. They were pleasant and persuasive, making the case that baseball has lost its bearings and its balance through mounting disparities in the distribution of revenue. p> Players won't budge

        They made perfect sense, but it makes no difference. Collective bargaining in baseball is about leverage, not logic. The players pay lip service to competitive balance, but what they're really after are competitive paychecks. They are America's most formidable labor union, with a winning streak that makes the '02 Mariners look like the '62 Mets, but their positions are not always conducive to baseball being an equitable enterprise.

        In a nutshell, the players have a stake in the New York Yankees spending zillions on player salaries. Management's interest, meanwhile, is in curbing George Steinbrenner's checkbook so more teams can compete.

        “If we don't have competition, we really don't have a sport,” said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations. “We have something else. It might be wrestling.”

        Alderson was preaching to the small-market choir, making the familiar point that the game's revenue gap between the filthy rich and the relative poor has created a small group of franchises that can compete consistently and a larger, enduring underclass.

        Baseball is not pro wrestling, but its pennant races have become as predictable as the sweaty soap operas scripted by Vince McMahon. As Deep Throat once said to Bob Woodward: “Follow the money.”

        Between 1995 and 2001, only five out of 224 postseason games were won by clubs in the lower half of the payroll standings.

Competitive issues

        Rob Manfred, baseball's vice president for labor relations, said Wednesday management's negotiating strategy was designed to address the competitive issues without provoking another work stoppage. Rather than seek a salary cap that surely would spark another strike, baseball's proposals are based around broader revenue sharing, a worldwide draft and a steeper “luxury tax” on big spenders.

        Manfred says he expects these concepts to lead to a settlement rather than another work stoppage. He's a smart guy and, like Alderson, a Harvard lawyer, but he may be underestimating the militancy of the union.

        Ultimately, it doesn't matter if management makes sense or if it can sell the public on its proposals. What matters is whether enough pressure can be applied to the players to extract concessions.

        Starting from scratch might be simpler.

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