SBJ/January 14 - 20, 2002/Opinion

It’s déjà vu all over again for MLB

The calendar now reads 2002 and further informs us that baseball spring training is scheduled to begin in just over a month. The sports pages tell us that negotiations for a contract between the players and team owners, to replace the one that expired with the last season, are only just beginning.

If two plus two still equals four (sometimes it seems that it doesn't), the sum of those facts can only be discouraging to devotees of the diamond sport.

The last time baseball had a labor go-around, it resulted in a strike that scrubbed the final six weeks of the 1994 regular season, the World Series and a month of the following season. When it ended, everybody involved piously looked heavenward and pledged "Never again."

It's turning out that "never" meant seven years.

Nothing much appears to have changed on baseball's labor scene because the participants haven't changed. Like young people generally, today's athletes think that the world began with their awareness of it, but the baseballers seem to possess uniquely an ancestral memory of the bad old days of player exploitation under the game's former reserve clause, and are bent on exacting retribution now that they have the financial upper hand. They enjoy that in large part because the owners think of themselves as partners in a common enterprise maybe 10 percent of the time, and the rest scrambling for advantage over their fellows. They make the kind of music you'd expect from a band whose members play from separate scores.

People who'd like to see baseball continue without interruption were dismayed by developments in the current off-season. Commissioner Bud Selig's drive to erase two chronically money-losing clubs before the start of the 2002 campaign not only sent schedule-makers into a tizzy, it also drove every other item off the labor-management agenda.

However it turns out, contraction's short-term upshot promises to be the sort of lose-lose situation baseball specializes in creating. If it's blocked by any of the actions now pending against it, fans in Minneapolis and Montreal — the cities apparently fingered for elimination — would find themselves with teams that have made clear their intention to divorce them. If it goes through, owners and players would have to turn their attentions away from broader issues and toward negotiating the terms under which the effected players would be made available to the remaining teams. Given the game's history in such matters, quick resolution isn't likely.

What baseball needs is an economic structure that would help level the playing field for the so-called small-market teams, and this year's bargaining round was supposed to address that. Selig has said he'd like to see the game's haves share 50 percent of most of their local revenues with the have-nots, up from the current 20 percent, and pay a larger "luxury" tax on their payrolls than they do at present.

The union would have to sign off on both those moves because of their possible impact on player salaries. It's loath to do so on grounds that a higher payroll tax could turn, de facto, into the salary cap it's always resisted, and that there's nothing to prevent small-market owners from depositing their revenue-sharing checks into their personal bank accounts. The latter point also is a concern of some big-market team owners.

The solution is to institute a team salary floor high enough to ensure that the various revenue-sharing payouts would be spent in ways that would enhance competition and maintain average salary levels. That's so obvious it's almost not worth saying until one recalls that what's obvious to most people doesn't always penetrate the baseball mind. The fat-headedness that brought the game to its present pass will take more than the Atkins Diet to cure.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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