SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

Two pawns in MLB's theater of the absurd

Perceptions about the past sometimes can be way off the mark, but it does seem that some things used to be simpler than now. For example, in the earlier days of unionism, when employers were required to adjust to collective bargaining as the method of establishing the terms and conditions of employment, employers developed direct tactics to protect their turf.

For a time the most popular method was to plead poverty. They told their employees and the public that, as employers, they could not afford improved wages or benefits; that the proposals they were being asked to accept would render them noncompetitive or, worse, bankrupt.

The usefulness of that assertion, however, deteriorated with repetition and because of increasing sophistication of labor-management negotiations as well as of the general public. The law began requiring an employer claiming poverty as a basis for refusing to negotiate in good faith to furnish appropriate factual documentation in support of its claim.

When major league baseball players organized, the employing clubs followed the same pattern, but with one variation. The standard "inability to pay" was asserted only in public statements made before and after collective-bargaining sessions. This was intended to insulate owners from the law's requirement that they furnish supporting financial documentation to the union, and for the most part it did.

The owners' tactics eventually convinced even some of the most rabid antiunion and pro-management observers that the poverty claims were without merit and therefore irrelevant.

In recent years matters have become less simple. Apparently it has become obvious to the baseball ownership power structure, or at least to its spin doctors, that, as they again prepare for union negotiations and salivate with the thought of another possible set of union-busting opportunities, their tired old poverty claims won't wash. An industry that has added $3 billion in annual revenue in the last 35 years is not in a good position to elicit sympathy with a "poor-mouth" claim. As a result, a new position has been dreamed up and pushed — and pushed — and pushed.

The new position has no more validity than the old, simple "we are broke" line, but it has succeeded in recruiting more willing flacks than the old laments. As a famous New York nightclub hostess was fond of saying in the 1930s, "There's a sucker born every minute — and two to take him." The essence of the new line is that a dreadful scourge is upon us, threatening professional team sports, especially Major League Baseball.

The scourge is said to be salary disparity. The contention is that salary disparity is the cause of league vertigo, manifested as chronic competitive imbalance. The diagnosticians assert, despite hard factual evidence to the contrary, that the imbalance either is worse than at any time in the past or if not, it is growing worse, and is different because it is now caused by salary disparity, allegedly a new phenomenon. Furthermore, today's spin doctors conclude that the cure for salary disparity ills includes massive revenue sharing, stiff "taxes" on the top team payrolls, forced movement of quality players via an annual draft from the more successful clubs to the less successful ones.

It is pro forma for such positions to be put forth by owners, their commissioner and their "blue ribbon" clones. It is disconcerting, however, to note that a journalist of Bob Costas' character is promoting the management party line. A journalist is by definition a neutral in relation to contending parties. If one can imagine a labor editor or reporter for any reputable paper writing about, for example, steel industry labor negotiations well before they begin and advising management what positions it should take, what demands to make, the rationale to be offered in support of such, and offering further unsolicited advice that the industry should attempt to enforce its demands by locking out its employees for a record long period if that's what it takes to obtain the recommended changes, one can realize the enormity of the impropriety represented by Costas' book last year, and subsequent interviews and speeches.

Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College similarly misunderstands his role as an academic neutral to be that of an unsolicited labor relations adviser to baseball ownership. What is startling is that both Costas and Zimbalist, intelligent and serious individuals, seem totally unaware that the salary disparity line in reality is not more than a bargaining ploy and that by treating it seriously as a major concern, as a battle cry and as the basis for and justification for an owner-induced shutdown of the industry for a record-breaking long period, they bid fair to unwittingly serve as pawns in a sports theater of the absurd in the year 2002, and perhaps thereafter.

Zimbalist, in a column in this publication a few weeks ago, objected in intemperate terms to a Wall Street Journal article. Allen Barra's straightforward article racked up the highest and lowest winning percentages of clubs in 16 years in the last century. He reported that in the later years, when there were more clubs, the disparity between the highest and lowest winning percentages narrowed; that last year for the first time not a single team finished above the .600 mark in won-lost percentage or below .400.

Zimbalist seemed to misinterpret Barra's article and, in the process of damning it, offered some observations that made little sense. He opined that baseball fans don't care if their club wins an additional one to five games per year. Obviously, it depends on whether the additional wins change the standing of the club. If the additional wins result in a club's winning first instead of second or third, fans would care a great deal.

In order to support the thesis that salary disparity is the problem of the day, Zimbalist argued that the correlation between team success and team payrolls is becoming more and more apparent. Actually, the domination of both leagues by a few teams was far greater in the past than in the present, as documented by Murray Chass in a May 8 column in The New York Times. Just one example: The Yankees, who have won four of the last five AL pennants, would have to win 10 more in the next 11 years to equal their record of 14 pennants in 16 years between 1949 and 1964.

Neither Zimbalist nor others deny the imbalances of the past. But they soft-pedal them by saying or implying that salary disparity was not the cause. Since player salaries and team payrolls were not published or generally known in the years prior to the union (1966), it is beyond argument that writers citing salary disparities or lack of disparities prior to 1966 cannot provide any factual substantiation whatsoever.

Although Zimbalist urges clearly radical changes, he professes to favor moderation in dealing with collective-bargaining problems. His is a peculiar definition of moderation. He favors more revenue sharing on top of the millions of dollars already shared each year, a stiffer luxury tax on the top team payrolls (to provide an incentive to move to lower payrolls), a forced draft of new players and existing players (requiring them to change teams), a salary/payroll cap (to reward clubs that will hand over a chunk of their annual revenue to less successful clubs), and other reforms (and nary a word relating to players' needs or desires). If this is the moderate approach, heaven help all of us if the hard-line, radical right among the new owners, encouraged by all this, insists on weighing in with its version of what is reasonable in the next negotiations.

Only in baseball can any fan, sportswriter, announcer or academician manage a ballclub better than Joe Torre or Bobby Valentine or, for that matter, John McGraw. It must follow, then, that any fan — or anyone else, with or without labor-management experience or knowledge — is qualified to give us the scenario of next year's negotiations. Only in baseball!

Marvin Miller was executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1983.

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