Just the mere talk about a baseball strike raises the ire of most sports fans. The average salary is more than 2 million a year, they say, and they’re going on strike? “I’m not doing it for me,” said Nomar Garciaparra, “I’m doing it for that little leaguer who will get here and say ‘I wish I played in that era.” I laughed out loud when I heard that one. Both sides have inordinate greed and selfishness, only to be outdone by their hatred for each other.
Since 1972, baseball owner and the players union have never resolved a labor disagreement without a work stoppage. When free-agency became a reality, it truly freed the players from what had been years of indentured servitude. When you were drafted by a team, you belonged to that team until they said you didn’t. The “reserve clause” was invoked by owners at the end of players’ contracts to keep them in the organization. When challenged, the reserve clause was struck down by the courts, and quickly. Players then bargained as a union for the terms of free-agency and salary arbitration and the incredible rising salary became a part of everyday baseball life.
“It’s not free-agency,” George Steinbrenner once told me, “It’s that damn arbitration that’s killing us. Second-rate second basemen don’t deserve that kind of money.” George was right, in theory, assuming that all owners were dealing from the same deck, operating on level ground. Which we know is not the case.
Steinbrenner’s local television package dwarfs anything else in baseball, and enables the Yankees to pick and choose players as they please. (see Mondesi, Raul and Weaver, Jeff in the Baseball Guide) The Yankees raiding other teams talent is nothing new. The Kansas City A’s served as an in-season farm team for the Bronx Bombers for years. Sharing their wealth for the good of the game is what the Yankees (Steinbrenner) have to be convinced of.
Although we’ve seen recently that money isn’t the final answer, just check out the Orioles recent record compared to their monstrous team salary. But without a lot of cash, you’re just not going to compete year after year. When the current contract runs out, there will be talk of a salary cap, which the players won’t agree to, and revenue sharing, which the owners won’t go for. And that’s why they’ll strike or be locked out, depending on which side you want to listen to.
Attendance figures can be pushed all over the place, but it’s pretty apparent that not as many people are going to major league ballparks. If they stop the season, and call off the World Series, like they did in 1994, the casual fan will walk away from the game and not come back. Ever. Sure, they’ll have a passing interest in the pennant races, and probably watch the playoffs and the World Series, but they’re not going back to the ball park. There are too many other options to spend their money on. Baseball doesn’t own the consciousness of the sporting public anymore. It’s part of the sports landscape. If they stop playing, that part is going to look pretty barren.