DETROIT -- Major League Baseball's quarterly owners meeting went quietly. The owners approved the sale of the Oakland Athletics and said all the right things about labor and expansion and a few other issues, but everyone knew that it was the calm before the storm.
The next time they meet -- in Los Angeles in January -- the game may again need a respirator. The labor dispute remains unsolved and back-room negotiations toward a new contract with the players union have not produced a significant breakthrough. If that still is the case three months from now, the game could be heading for another crisis of public confidence and -- with it -- economic disaster.
The 1995 numbers should be frightening enough to push both sides closer to a settlement. Attendance is down by nearly 20 percent, broadcast revenues are uncertain and the average player salary is in decline. If the labor crisis depresses off-season ticket sales again, who knows when the fans and the advertisers will come back?
"I can't imagine us getting to December without an agreement," said ownership negotiating chief John Harrington. "It's so negative to the industry to drain all of the revenue."
Of course, no one imagined that the labor crisis would alter two seasons and cause the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, so it was an interesting coincidence that the owners were dancing around the labor question yesterday -- the one-year anniversary of acting commissioner Bud Selig's announcement that the World Series would not be played for the first time since 1904.
Selig had nothing nearly as dramatic to announce on the final day of the three-day meeting. The owners unanimously approved the sale of the A's to Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, which was a foregone conclusion, and heard reports from the Player Relations Committee and the Strategic Planning Committee.
Many clubs worry that their winter selling season will be hurt badly if there is not a guarantee that the 1996 season will be played, but there isn't even a guarantee that the 1995 postseason will go ahead as scheduled. No one seriously believes that the Major League Baseball Players Association will boycott the postseason, but it has refused to give the owners a no-strike pledge unless players get credit for 1994 and 1995 lost service time in return.
Uncertainty surrounding the start of the 1995 season had a large impact on group ticket sales, which was reflected in large sections of empty seats even at heavily sold Camden Yards. Orioles owner Peter Angelos does not want to see it happen again, but he expressed support for the current ownership labor strategy.
"That's a concern and everyone is committed to getting an agreement," Angelos said.
"They are working very hard, and we're optimistic."