The Albert Belle contract might be the best thing to ever happen to baseball.
That might sound preposterous, seeing as how the Chicago White Sox just committed $55 million to a lout.
But maybe now the owners will approve a labor agreement, defying Jerry Reinsdorf once and for all.
It's all out in the open now, isn't it?
Reinsdorf doesn't want to save baseball; he wants to save himself.
And his lapdog, Bud Selig, is woefully miscast as commissioner.
The owners, of course, are the last ones to discover this. And if they can't act on it now, they never will.
Selig reportedly will call an owners meeting for Tuesday in Chicago, and with any luck, there will be mutiny in the air.
How can Selig face his fellow small-market owners?
How can Reinsdorf face his fellow large-market owners?
No wonder Reinsdorf blocked the proposed settlement -- he didn't want a luxury tax, didn't want revenue sharing, didn't want Alex Fernandez to become a service-time free agent.
He wanted Albert Belle.
And if the small-market teams didn't like it, tough.
Belle and Frank Thomas will earn a combined $18.1 million next season -- more than the entire payrolls of four teams (Detroit, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee) in 1996.
"I really don't think it's appropriate to say anything," Selig told the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel. "He [Belle] is in our division, and there's a conflict there for me."
We hadn't noticed.
Selig, derided as a "small-town schlepper" by previous commissioner Fay Vincent, couldn't possibly hold his own with a big-city shark like Reinsdorf.
Yet, those two fancied themselves the Roosevelt and Churchill of baseball.
A small group of owners reportedly is ready to dump Selig, and it's about time.
Anybody else would be an improvement.
After the owners voted down the settlement, Selig said, "We intend to move as expeditiously as possible and bring this to a successful conclusion."
Union head Donald Fehr said the deal is "dead, dead as a doornail."
Selig was unavailable for comment yesterday.
He was packing for Elba.
Baseball executives are furious over the Belle signing -- furious to the point that it might be the final blow, not just for Selig as commissioner, but for Reinsdorf as a power broker.
"Everyone has got to do what they feel is right for their franchise," Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said. "He went ahead and did what was right for his franchise, but not in the best interests of the industry.
"He's got to live with that. He probably helped his franchise, but he did a big disservice to the industry."
Indeed, the signing recalled a scene from John Helyar's book, "Lords of the Realm," in which former Houston owner John McMullen raged about the record contract Ryne Sandberg received in 1993.
Sandberg signed for an average of $7.1 million, eclipsing the previous mark of $5.9 million held by Bobby Bonilla.
"Don't you know there's a number between five and seven?" McMullen screamed at former Chicago Cubs president Stanton Cook. "It's six!"
Doesn't Reinsdorf know there are two numbers between eight and 11?
Nine and 10!
"I don't understand the economics of it," said Andy MacPhail, current Cubs president. "I suppose they know the economics better than I do. You have to give 'em the benefit of the doubt.
"Ken Griffey is a unique talent with an average annual value of $8.5 million. When the next player supersedes it by $2 million, and he's somebody who has had a litany of off-field episodes, that's just hard to understand.
"But I have to follow that up immediately by saying I expect clubs will follow their own self-interest, just like foreign countries do. To expect they'll do anything other than that is kind of naive at this point."
So, let's not be naive -- White Sox fans believed the team was headed for the World Series before the strike in 1994, and hold Reinsdorf partly responsible for baseball's labor discord.
He needed to throw them a bone.
And he delivered the game's biggest creep, who vowed not to change even though he will be the sport's highest-paid player, performing for a high-profile team in a high-profile town.
Smart business? Apparently.
The White Sox averaged 32,026 fans in '94. Last year, they averaged 21,220, 19th among the 28 teams. But by mid-afternoon yesterday, they had sold 500 season tickets in a 24-hour span.
"They're a competitive team, and did not really have the attendance one would associate with that kind of team," MacPhail said. "They're trying to do things to combat that apathy, that anger.
"They have to do what they think is best. The problem in our game is that we're often held to the standard of our most desperate or most lavish competition."
The Yankees and Orioles can keep pace with the White Sox.
But how can the small-market clubs?
"We'll play our hearts out against them, but the bottom line is, when they want to do something they can go out and do it," Brewers manager Phil Garner said. "The Kansas Citys, Minnesotas, Milwaukees don't have a chance."
A labor agreement is the only way to correct such an imbalance, but Reinsdorf follows his own agenda, and Selig appears so beholden to him, he has damaged the sport as well as his own club.
Maybe the Belle signing will prove a blessing.
It's all out in the open now.
Pub Date: 11/21/96