SBJ/July 30 - August 5, 2001/Opinion

IN OUR VIEW

Within a matter of weeks, Major League Baseball and the union of athletes who play the game at the highest level will meet at the bargaining table. They will begin to negotiate a new labor contract that — without being too dramatic — could very well determine the future of our national game.

Our game. Baseball is our game, part of the fabric of American life since our grandfathers' fathers gave their hearts to industrial teams or found a spiritual connection with the young men who wore the names of their communities on their chests.

Yet the barons of baseball choose to think of the game as theirs. And why not? Owners, understandably, have a hard time seeing their nine-figure assets as part of a national treasure. It's their business. They will do whatever it takes protect their investments. And that includes playing their cards close to the vest.

One presumes that they are developing a strategy for the coming negotiations, although history is not kind to owners and their strategies. Yet those who care about our game expected owners at the season's midpoint to start singing from Bud Selig's hymnal.

That didn't happen. Instead, baseball executives continue to hide behind a veil of secrecy enforced by Selig's million-dollar penalty for breaking the gag order.

One of the consequences of secrecy, though, is speculation. So while pundits write about competitive balance and contraction, revenue sharing and salary caps, a better indication of what may be comes from baseball's boardrooms. And there, one finds the curious case of the sale of the Boston Red Sox.

After months of dragging his feet, Red Sox CEO John Harrington imposed an Aug. 15 deadline for bids to purchase the historic but forlorn team. This suggestive piece of news was a bit foreboding because Harrington, who was vice chair of baseball's blue ribbon panel on economics and who is close to Selig, chose to sell at a time of uncertainty.

Potential owners are making bids when revenue sharing is being debated and the labor situation is problematic. In other words, highly successful business people are bidding on an investment when they can't possibly predict the economic outlook. Uncertainty equals risk and risk drives prices down.

Assuming that Harrington has a businessman's obligation to get the highest price for himself and his partners, what does he know that the rest of us don't? He obviously believes that Red Sox are more valuable now than the team will be after labor negotiations progress. Is his timing an indication of a coming work stoppage?

Since the union is more likely to use the courts, rather than a strike, as its hammer, a work stoppage is more likely to come from the owners than from labor. So, the timing of the sale of the Red Sox then may be an indication that owners are contemplating a lockout. It is, after all, the owners who have more demands at this time in baseball's history than the union.

It goes without saying that owners should do whatever necessary to protect their investments and our game. But they should be mindful that it took Major League Baseball five years to recover from its last work stoppage. Another will drive some customers away forever.

— SportsBusiness Journal

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