I Tell You, the Big Leagues Are Not to Be Believed


Washington. -- A side from the enrichment of baseball trivia quizzes, did any good come from the strike that cost the players $230 million in salaries, cost the owners $700 million in revenues, and will continue to reduce the revenues and status of the sport below what might have been were it not condemned to go from 1993 to 1996 without a full season? Actually, yes.

It is not true that the owners suffered a total shellacking from the players' union. The players have accepted the principle of a luxury tax -- a tax on team payrolls over a certain threshold -- to exert some drag on the growth of their salaries. The owners have acknowledged to each other the need for improved revenue sharing, largely to compensate for huge disparities between teams' local broadcast revenues. (In 1993 the Seattle Mariners got about $3 million, the Yankees more than $40 million.) And there will be an end to the imprudence of an owner, Bud Selig, serving as commissioner -- the compounded imprudence of the owner being from a low-revenue team, the Milwaukee Brewers.

The owners engineered the strike, and made sure it would be a long one. They fired commissioner Fay Vincent, instituted rules by which any eight owners could block a settlement, reopened the contract a year early, waited 534 days to make a proposal -- then proposed something the players had repeatedly and emphatically rejected, a salary cap.

The owners have an unenviable record of misplaced certitude over the years. They wrongly thought radio and television broadcasts of games would kill attendance. They wrongly thought free agency for players would ruin competitive balance and fan loyalty. They wrongly thought they could get away with illegal collusion against free agency.

During this strike the owners were confident that a significant number of players would break ranks and come to spring training. Not a single player did. The owners thought that fielding teams of replacement players would put pressure on the real players. Actually, the implausibility of those teams put pressure on the owners. However, most of the owners would have opened the season with the travesty of replacement teams if the owners had not been wrong about what they could do under federal labor law.

The union, too, has been too confident about some judgments. The negotiations might have been less bitter if the union had not taken such a dark view of the dampening effect a luxury tax would have on competition for talent. The owners underestimated, again, the athletes' competitive passion for winning at the negotiation table as well as between the white lines.

But the players' union may have underestimated the owners' animal spirits. Even a luxury tax of 50 percent on spending over $44 million -- the rate and threshold in the owners' last proposal -- might have a negligible effect on the spending of owners convinced they are just one player away from making the playoffs.

Last month the owners took time out from lamenting baseball's supposedly parlous financial condition and charged investors from Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg a total of $310 million for the privilege of entering the baseball business with expansion franchises.

Yet the owners continue telling their customers, the fans, that their products, the players, are greedy and overpaid. The supposed evidence of the greed is that players have taken the salaries that owners have offered in competitive bidding for talent, and because players have been reluctant to negotiate limits to such competition for their services.

But the players' strike contained a large ingredient of the opposite of greed -- sacrifice for the benefit of strangers. Many players who struck absorbed financial loses they will never recoup. They did so to preserve a compensation system -- a system won for them by the sacrifices of earlier strikers -- many of the benefits of which will accrue to players who are not yet in the major leagues, or even professional baseball.

"I've never been able to afford one of those Gillette Sensor shavers," said a replacement pitcher for the Dodgers. "But I come here [to the Dodgers' spring training camp] and they got those things lying all over the bathroom for free. I'm telling you, the big leagues are unbelievable." Much of what has recently been said and done in baseball has been, in one way or another, unbelievable.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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