Only a Pollyanna would say baseball isn’t lurching toward another impasse. These foolish, stubborn men are more interested in battling each other than preserving the grand old game, which explains why it’s now the national past-its-time. “I can’t say that I’m optimistic.” says Fay Vincent, the last independent commissioner, ousted back when the sport was much better. And if a tense off-season follows previous form–a lockout that leads to a work stoppage next season, the ninth in three decades–you know what that spells.
Simply, baseball’s role in America would slow to a crawl. Any remaining smidgen of consumer trust would vanish. There’s an adage that the game’s recovery powers are almighty, that the scab always heals no matter the wound.
Not this time, not after so much bleeding and heartache. The public has come to view the owners, players and negotiators with zero tolerance and considerable disdain. Either the parties figure out how to divide a caviar pie, or we’ll start finding something better to do between April and October. It took three long years for folks to rediscover the game after the last labor ruckus–and only after a precious home run race that overlooked Mark McGwire’s use of androstenedione and a suspiciously lively ball. To expect another forgive-and forget favor would be laughably wrong.
The biggest fib going is Selig’s concept that baseball is in a sparkling “renaissance.” In truth, baseball is in a delicate holding pattern between crises. The most perilous predicament is ahead, with an onus on the owners to maintain their poise and finally convince the players that the economic system needs significant reform. Last time, the owners approached the union like so many army generals. This time, at least the climate is calmer after Selig’s gag order. Instead of blustery loudmouths pounding chests, the owners are represented by a bread breaker like Paul Beeston. Yet when Selig talks of eliminating at least two franchises, it doesn’t remind anyone of Geneva.
Besides, a more workable mood hardly means a deal will be struck. When I asked Players Association chief Don Fehr when serious talks might start, he suggested I call Selig and ask him. Some have said Selig will ask to extend the current agreement for a year. But that only would delay the inevitable, giving owners more time to prepare their case for massive change. And why would the fat-cat union, which owns all the leverage after repeated labor successes, agree to an extension or massive change? Cautions Vincent: “You have to work with the union, and I think baseball continues to think there can be gains by fighting with them. You can’t win that way. The union is like Rocky Marciano. It’s 49-0, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be 50-0.”
The key is whether Fehr is receptive enough to listen to Selig, who aches to close the disparity between big-revenue and small-revenue teams with solutions ranging from revenue sharing to reducing the number of teams. The players don’t seem in the mood to bargain, especially as Selig extols the game’s good health. Before real negotiations can begin, big-revenue and small-revenue owners must agree on common strategy. It was a glaring failure in 1994. “It’s up to them to be on the same page,” Fehr says.
Selig understands the importance of avoiding another work stoppage. But he says he can’t accept the status quo, either. The man is 67. Is it wise to brawl with Marciano again? “I can’t do what has been done so often in the past.” he says. “I don’t want to say, `Well, we fixed it,’ when I know in my heart and mind we really didn’t. So there’s got to be real change.”
Someone tried to talk me out of writing this column. His argument: No one wants to read about labor now, not with so much joy in baseball. He doesn’t understand.
If the labor mess isn’t resolved–right here, right now–baseball as we’ve known it is dead. There is no joy in Budville.