Bawls and Strikes

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Players and fans resume their positions after avoiding a players' strike

At noon Friday, baseball finally got the message: play nice, play fair, play ball. Eight previous times since 1981, when a 51-day strike cut the season in two, the club owners and the players' "union" have been unable to come to an agreement without a work stoppage. Each time, the fans grumbled, threatened to boycott the game, and the returned to the ballpark. Their defiance was not as strong as their dependence on a sport they'd loved since childhood. But after the World Series-obliterating strike of 1994, a lot of fans stayed angry and stayed away. Attendance dropped severely, returning only with the lure of new stadiums and a livelier ball. It is still below the 1994 per-game levels, and this season has fallen 6% from a year ago.

In the current round of negotiations, the two sides looked around and saw the nation in a recession, with the first anniversary of 9/11 less than two weeks away. More important, throughout the bargaining they surely felt the hot, sausagey breath of angry fans, fed up with the players' high salaries and the public squabbling between workers and management. Thursday night, in what could have been the final game of the 2002 season, the rancorous rabble at the Ed in Anaheim threw baseballs and debris on the field.

These ticket-buyers, ready to lavish their disposable income elsewhere, were an invisible but potent third party in these talks. As pitcher Steve Kline, the St. Louis Cardinals' player rep said, "It came down to us playing baseball or having our reputations and life ripped by the fans." Ripped? Make that reamed. Ballplayers, like any entertainers, don't like to be hated.

So they settled. The terms of the agreement (read the small print here) mean little to fans. They can't feel the pain of players whose average salary ($2,380,000) is 46 times what it was in 1976, the year before free agency ($51,101). Fans see players as a baseball corporations' highest-level employees, the equivalent of top executives, and getting the same gross overcompensation. They also wonder why the small-market teams who have just won their own hefty compensations in the form of luxury taxes and revenue sharing aren't contractually obliged to spend the new money on their prime product, the players. Didn't some team build a fountain beyond center field with their slice of the tax?

So if fans have a look as sour as relieved today, I don't blame them. I Feel the same — like a wife whose husband has told her he might walk out, then says, "Changed my mind." I still feel a little bit diminished, and a whole lot used. A TALE OF TWO TEAMS

I'm a passionate, somewhat schizophrenic fan of two baseball teams: the Oakland A's (who were once in Philadelphia, where I grew up) and the New York Yankees (I've lived in Manhattan for my entire so-called adult life). My bi-coastal allegiance is tested only when one team plays the other, as in the opening rounds of the last two post-seasons, and then I root for my first love, even though the A's moved out of Philly 46 years ago. Aaah, franchise loyalty: it's sick, it's sweet, it's what helps baseball survive in its sprightly dotage. And it's kept me smiling this year, since my teams are leading their respective divisions, have the two best records in the American League and seem headed for another memorable playoff collision.

They also offer two models for baseball survival. It happens that the A's have the A.L.'s second lowest payroll ($40,004,167), while the Yankees have the highest in the sport ($125,918,583 at the beginning of the season, but really about $171 million, including mid-season acquisitions and salaries paid to players no longer or not yet on the team). How can the A's compete with a franchise that spends three or four times as much on the only commodity that matters — players? The way any management succeeds in sports: by being smart and lucky.

After a decade in the doldrums, Oakland returned to playoff contention with the emergence of a young pitching rotation that is, just now, the best in the majors. And because these pitchers haven't been around long enough to become free agents, the team is getting their expert services for peanuts. Last year, the rotation established two remarkable stats: each of the five starters had a season earned run average below 4.00; and the salaries for the A's top three starters — Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito — totaled less than $1 million. (The Yankees' paid roughly 30 times as much to their top trio: Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte.) I challenge Bill James or Allen Barra, the reigning sultans of stats, to name another team in the free-agency era that has got such high quality for such a low price.

Under General Manager Billy Beane, the A's also developed some terrific field players: shortstop Miguel Tejada, third baseman Eric Chavez and a genuine superstar, first baseman Jason Giambi, who was voted the Most Valuable Player of 2000 and had another nifty year in 2001. But after his brother Jeremy declined to slide into home plate to avoid a Derek Jeter throw to Jorge Posada, and A's lost a heartbreaking playoff round last October (my heart still sinks at the memory), Jason took Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's offer and left the only major league team he'd ever played for. It was more complicated than that: the A's could have signed Giambi at the beginning of last season but, in one of their few stupid recent moves, balked at his demand for a no-trade clause. But the story was familiar to fans of smaller-market teams: a home-grown star went where the money was.

The Yankees, who in Steinbrenner's earlier years too often lavished big bucks on underachieving mercenaries, have also been smart and lucky. Like the A's, they developed the core of their team: Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, pitcher Mariano Rivera, center fielder Bernie Williams and this year's phenom, Alfonso Soriano, at second base. But with a huge TV-revenue deal in the nation's largest city, the Yanks can afford to keep those players when they are eligible for free agency. This year Steinbrenner is paying Pettitte, Rivera, Jeter, Williams and Posada a combined $53 million — $13 million more than Oakland's whole payroll. Soriano, who hit his 33rd home run this evening, is pulling in a measly $650,000, but his time will come, and the Yankees will make him rich to keep him around.

Meanwhile, teams like the A's nurture good young players, get to benefit from them for a few years and then, because they can compete on the field but not at the bank, lose them to the high rollers. The small-market clubs are the fat cats' farm teams. Which makes A's fans edgy. Knowing that most of their favorites will soon be playing for the Yankees, Mets or Braves, they have to savor the good times as if it were a fast-food banquet.

Fans of teams without luck or smarts can suffer more equitably. They don't ride a roller coaster; they slog on a downward-sloping treadmill. For these fans, the future is only as bleak as the present. HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER

The short answer: I have no idea. Baseball is a game of the past. It lacks what makes football so popular: violence and illegal gambling. And unlike football, baseball is not a national sport but a local one. A team's prime revenue comes from tickets and local TV deals. The Yankees make $100 million from their radio-TV coverage; the Montreal Expos, $500,000. In football, teams share the huge national TV contract equally. No owner can go broke.

Here are three more issues that will keep dogging baseball:

COMPETITIVE BALANCE. The rich teams win, the poor lose — right? Right. Sometimes. The Yankees have indeed won four of the last six World Series, and have gone to the finals five times. But from 1979 to 1991, when free agency first flourished, no team won consecutive World Series; and the six teams from the three largest markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago) were in the Series only twice (the Mets in 1986, L.A. in 1988).

How about this year? In the American League, the three division leaders are the Yankees (#1 in payroll among the 14 A.L. teams), the Minnesota Twins (#12, at $40,225,000) and the A's (#13). The other teams in playoff contention — Boston, Anaheim and Seattle — are all in the top half of the salary list. In the National League, it seems, money does buy competitiveness. The three division leaders (Atlanta, St. Louis and Arizona) and the three closest pretenders (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston) are all among the top eight spenders. Again, it's hard to generalize. And remember that baseball had plenty of perpetual cellar-dwellers long before free agency, as fans of the St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators and my own Philadelphia A's will mournfully attest.

CAPS AND FLOORS. What if baseball were to have a kind of salary cap? The kind in the National Basketball Association, where a team can go over its maximum payroll figure only by meeting the market price of its own free-agent player. "It's not a cap, more like a visor," as Sporting News Radio's Chuck Howe called it. A nice idea, but the players would never agree.

If not a ceiling for team spending, how about a floor — a minimum amount to plow into the athletes' salaries? The players opposed this, because they want a free market for their services, sensibly assuming that there will always be an idiot owner like the Texas Rangers' Tom Hicks to pay Alex Rodriguez 30% more than anyone else was offering. There's another reason to be skeptical of a floor: it would truly hurt small-market teams. Let's say the two sides negotiated a minimum for next year of $50 million. Where were the A's going to get this money — $10 million over their current payroll? And what were they supposed to do with it? Give every member of the team an extra $400,000?

THE HAVE-NOTS. You might not get misty-sobby when you hear this, but there is a dreadful imbalance in baseball: between the salaries of the 30-something stars and those of the up-and-comers and hangers-on. This year, 36% of major league players are being paid $300,000 or less. And though the minimum wage will be raised from $200,000 to $300,000 next year, it won't go up again until 2005. Zito, my favorite A's pitcher, is making $295,000 this year, about 1/75th A-Rod's salary. This lowest third of players are the sport's indentured servants, the sympathy cases, the poster kids. Think of them, long-suffering baseball fans, the next time you're looking for someone beside yourselves to feel sorry for.