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There Will Be Little Joy Left in Mudville

I never saw a strike that was “won.” Not in the short run.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate of big business. I grew up in a household where my grandfather worked 14 hours a day. If he got hurt on the job--as he often did--that was his tough luck. They not only didn’t pay his medical expenses, they didn’t even pay his salary while he was off the job. I’m guessing that was about $15 a week. Management took the position the injury was his own damn carelessness. No concern of theirs.

Costly strikes elsewhere helped to change that sorry state of things. But so did indignant doctors and enterprising lawyers. If a Royal Typewriter strike garnered a $2-an-hour raise, the price of typewriters went up 50 bucks. So did the services of those who had to buy them. Newspapers went from 3 cents a copy to 10 cents. Reporters went clear up to $25 a week.

Which brings me to the baseball strike that is imminent. For the first time in history, the World Series is in danger of being wiped out. Not even world wars could wipe out World Series. But a union might do it. With a lot of help from management.

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I don’t think either unionist Don Fehr or ownership’s Richard Ravitch wants to be known as “the creature that killed baseball.” Ravitch maintains that he’s trying to save it. Fehr’s view is narrower. He’s trying to save the union rank and file their multimillion-dollar lifestyles.

If it comes to pass, it will be the first strike in history where the strikers had more money than the bosses. In the whole history of labor warfare, this has never happened anywhere but baseball.

The issues are clear: Ownership wants a salary cap, i.e, a fixed ceiling on the amount of money they will pay the help each year. The union scoffs at this. Understandably. Why play for table stakes when you have all the aces?

Baseball says nine or more of its teams are losing money. Then, someone goes out and pays $173 million for the Baltimore Orioles. The Baltimore Orioles! The team that used to be the St. Louis Browns--a team that drew fewer fans in a decade than the New York Yankees drew in a big week.

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Why plead poormouth when southern cities are so salivating for franchises that they build stadiums in the hopes they can lure a team and will pay almost anything to get one?

How can you plead poormouth when the game could charge Miami and Denver $95 million merely for the license to do business? Batteries (ballplayers) not included.

Baseball insists it has to have a salary cap to institute revenue sharing. Now, revenue sharing is obviously a priority. The Yankees’ local radio-TV contracts, the real lifeblood of a franchise, were for about $54 million. The Seattle Mariners’ were for about $3 million.

Pittsburgh had to trade--or simply lose--Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek. That’s half a pennant right there. The San Diego Padres had to scatter Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Tony Fernandez, Bruce Hurst, Randy Myers and Benito Santiago. Couldn’t afford them.

Clearly, small-market teams are overmatched in the counting house. And, therefore, on the playing field. It has to be leveled. Not everyone can move to Tampa-St. Pete. If the Dodgers take in $80 million more in TV revenue than, say, San Diego, the game has a problem.

That’s San Diego’s problem, the players say. Well, not exactly. The essence of sport is competition, not exhibition. A Dream Team giving a recital only works every decade or so. If you can’t compete at the bank, you can’t compete on the bases.

How many of the advantages of today’s players are ascribable to work stoppages? Well, the costliest one in baseball history, 1981, started out with management having a strike fund with Lloyd’s of London that paid each club $100,000 per lost game. The policy didn’t go into effect until the second week and topped out at 500 games. The strike lasted 712 games. The owners lost $72 million--offset by Lloyd’s $44 million--but the players lost $28 million. Home mortgages, alimonies, autos, club dues, maids, butlers, yard work, phone calls and the yacht go on whether baseball does or doesn’t.

Setting a strike date is like dropping leaflets over an open city. It gives the enemy, i.e., the owners, time to break out the white flag.

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What if they don’t? What if the game takes this called third strike with its bat on its shoulder?

Well, the economic ruin would be devastating. It has been estimated that it would cost Barry Bonds more than $25,000 a day. Or more than $1.3 million if the rest of the season is wiped out. It would cost baseball $140 million if the postseason were wiped out.

What if baseball itself is wiped out? What if fan disgust finally boils over? What if they gave a ball game and nobody showed up?

Not likely. They will show up, all right. The day after the ’81 strike ended, 60,000 fans showed up in Philadelphia to see Cincinnati’s Pete Rose go for his 3,631st all-time National League-leading hit. Baseball fans don’t have to buy tickets, they have the remote control in their hands. They have the veto power. They simply won’t exercise it.

It’s hard to argue with the gains posted. Fehr, as did Marvin Miller before him, likes to behave as if he is representing the girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, but the ante has gone steadily up for these hired hands who not only don’t make shirts in a sweatshop but who are probably the most visible bunch of underachievers in the labor force. They fail at what they do two out of every three times. They sign $43-million contracts, with a $10-million signing bonus--then they go out and sell their autographs. In many cases, they refuse to help promote the game that makes them all this money.

The gains they have made are hardly made on the picket line. Free agency came about mainly because owner Charlie Finley neglected to put part of pitcher Catfish Hunter’s salary in an insurance fund and a three-man arbitration committee declared him a free agent. A permanent arbitrator--which was to turn out to be the owners’ Little Big Horn--was put in place by the owners themselves, by a vote of 22-2.

Salaries, of course, escalated. But that was due not so much to labor activity as to the presence of a new and well-heeled player in the game, television. At one point, television was paying $14 million a year to each club. It was a major reason baseball’s average salary went from $35,000 a year in 1975 to $326,000 by 1984 to more than $1 million today, with nearly 200 players making more than $2 million a year.

But baseball teams play 162 games a year compared with 82 for basketball teams and 16 for football teams. A baseball game is hardly the event the others are--as CBS was to discover to its sorrow. CBS paid $1.06 billion for the grand old game--and lost its shirt. Today, baseball merely takes its cut of TV revenue with the networks. In short, it only gets what it earns, based on how it performs.

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Too bad the players can’t do the same. When last seen, baseball was paying about $50 million to players who were no longer performing at all--and at least one team, the Dodgers, were paying millions to a player (see Darryl Strawberry) who was performing for another team and beating their brains out.

It’s not a game anymore. It’s an industry. It’s barnacled with agents, accountants, superstations, licensing fees, strikes, lockouts, corked bats and card shows. It’s run by and for millionaires. It’s not “Casey at the Bat” anymore, it’s Casey at the Bank.

When I think of Grandpa crawling around those belt lines at Pratt & Whitney for 54 years, I could cry.

Strike Losses

Players who would lose the most in salary during each day of a strike, with 1994 salary, daily loss and total loss if the strike lasts from Aug. 12 through the rest of the season.

Salaries listed do not include prorated shares of signing bonuses or other guaranteed income, or incentive bonuses earned or money lost because of lost opportunities for incentive bonuses.

Daily loss is calculated by dividing 1994 salary by 183, the number of days scheduled for the 1994 season. The method was established in a 1983 decision by arbitrator Raymond Goetz dealing with salaries during the 1981 strike.

52-Day No. Player, Team Salary Daily Total 1. Bobby Bonilla, Mets $5,700,000 $31,148 $1,619,672 2. Jack McDowell, White Sox 5,300,000 28,692 1,506,011 3. Roberto Alomar, Blue Jays 5,000,000 27,322 1,420,765 Roger Clemens, Red Sox 5,000,000 27,322 1,420,765 David Cone, Royals 5,000,000 27,322 1,420,765 6. Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles 4,800,000 26,230 1,363,934 7. Barry Bonds, Giants 4,750,000 25,956 1,349,727 8. Gary Sheffield, Marlins 4,625,000 25,273 1,314,208 9. Gregg Jefferies, Cardinals 4,600,000 25,137 1,307,104 Wally Joyner, Royals 4,600,000 25,137 1,307,104 John Smiley, Reds 4,600,000 25,137 1,307,104 Minimum Salary 109,000 596 30,973


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