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The Owners : Baseball’s Newest Heroes

<i> Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor/Doubleday). He is now working on a book about columnist Walter Winchell</i>

If there is a baseball strike this Friday as expected, rest assured the players will be the ones castigated for it. According to a recent poll in Baseball Weekly, 45% of the public will hold the players responsible, as opposed to only 28% who will blame the owners. Players are greedy, fans have long grumped. They are forcing the game off the field, and ticket prices through the roof. What are the beleaguered owners to do? To save their game, owners must invoke discipline like schoolteachers in a classroom of unruly students. Or so the cliche goes.

It is a peculiar turn of events that has the fans demonizing the players and siding with the plutocrats. We are supposed to be a meritocracy, and there may be no more meritocratic institution than sports. Breeding, wealth, connections, education count for nothing on the athletic field. Only talent matters. Mike Piazza earns his salary because he can whack a ball out of the stadium. What did Dodgers’ owner Peter O’Malley do to earn his millions aside from having the good fortune to be Walter O’Malley’s son?

To be even a good baseball player, much less a great one, may be a gift, but it is a gift few individuals possess--so few, in fact, that the scarcity has driven up the price of each. To stop the upward spiral, the owners want to impose a salary cap--another name for a spending cap. Under a cap, the players would agree to limit their salaries and thus save the owners from the folly of paying those salaries. The players, reasonably, are refusing to do so. If you don’t want to pay the players millions of dollars, the players’ negotiator, Don Fehr, has told the owners, it’s simple: Just say “no.”

There are few labor situations in which the merits so clearly rest with one side as they do here. Nonetheless, the owners have cleverly exploited public resentment toward young men, many of them black and Latino, by depicting them as spoiled and overpaid--as if the owners, who do nothing, aren’t. “I’d pay to be a major leaguer,” some fans grouse, as no doubt they would--but only because they don’t possess the skills to play major league baseball without paying for the privilege. If they had the skills of a Barry Bonds or a Frank Thomas, believe me, they wouldn’t pay--they would want to be paid, and paid well.

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But the owners aren’t only exploiting our envy of the players; they are also tapping a fundamental change in our economic thinking over the last 15 years--a change that has us identifying with the sort of men Americans once roundly denounced as economic royalists. Instead, we are denouncing working people, be they striking baseball players, air-traffic controllers or Teamsters.

Truth is, there has never been much overt class antagonism in America. Here, opportunity was always regarded as more important than equality. Though there have been periods when class conflicts flared--notably in the Jacksonian period, at the end of the 19th Century and during the Great Depression--Americans generally submerged their class warfare in subtle cultural warfare. Indeed, the whole idea of class was made to seem un-American and socialistic. In this country, we are told, class bounds are permeable. Paupers can become millionaires and millionaires paupers. In those circumstances, largely mythic to be sure, there is no real need for class solidarity, because there are no permanent classes to feel solidarity with.

This isn’t to say that Americans haven’t been aware of discrepancies of wealth and power between rich and poor, especially when the gaps became canyons and the wealthy flaunted their gains, as they did in the 1920s. But even then, the crash and the Depression served as correctives, economic justice translated into moral justice. By the time of postwar prosperity, the rifts had been healed, the anger dissipated, the sense of classlessness, or at least hopefulness, restored.

It wasn’t until the ‘80s, with the massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the upper classes under Ronald Reagan, that the egregious disparities of wealth once again taunted the American working class, now being called the middle class. But this time there was only a recession to punish the rich, not the grand moral antidote of the ‘30s. People were and are angry--angry that they didn’t get more benefits from the high times, angry that most families must have two wage earners now to make ends meet, angry that they, as taxpayers, have to shoulder the burden for economic debacles like the savings-and-loan scandals that enriched the few.

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But, remarkably, they don’t target their anger at the real villains. The genius of Reagan was in getting Americans to channel their anger at people who were in no way responsible for the situation. Through a national hidden-ball trick, Reagan and his cohorts managed to deflect attention from themselves to government bureaucrats, always handy scapegoats, and to ordinary working people who dared demand their share of the loot. In short, they turned the people against themselves--hence the anger at the ballplayers, the vast majority of whom, after all, are poor or middle-class folks who made good.

How did the conservatives accomplish this feat of legerdemain? Through a long propaganda campaign. Now the baseball owners are deploying those same techniques to win the public-relations war against the players.

* Rely on anecdotes, not evidence. In battle, conservatives always come armed with an anecdote: the story of a welfare mother who owns a Cadillac or a .250 hitter earning $3 million a year. The important thing is to create vivid economic images, images with shock value. Baseball players have such high visibility, they’re especially susceptible to this sort of thing. By the same token, it is difficult to get exercised over the excesses of an owner because the owners and the excesses are both indistinct.

* Wrap investment wealth in an aura of mystification. One longstanding rule of thumb is that you can only hate what is in your realm of comprehension. Most Americans understand earned wealth: money for labor. They understand a ballplayer getting millions of dollars for playing the game--precisely why they can begrudge him that money. The tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment wealth that the owners have, on the other hand, is beyond the ken of most of us. We cannot begrudge what we cannot even begin to fathom.

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* Convince people that economics is a zero-sum game. One thing you hear a lot among baseball fans is that whatever money the players earn, the fans will wind up paying. The corollary is that if the players get less, fans will have more--as if the owners, out of sheer altruism, wouldn’t pocket the profits. If we are encouraged to believe that our economic pie is limited (but not the infinitely sized pie of the truly wealthy), then we are going to be fighting over the pieces and bristling that whatever other working people get comes at our expense.

* Transform economic issues into moral ones. Here is one of the neatest tricks of the owners. Enough is supposed to be enough. Ask for more money, and you are called greedy. Ask for better working conditions, and you are called lazy. Ask for security, and you are called a freeloader. Wealth is a sign of grace, goes the old Calvinist theory. As adapted by conservatives, wealth is a sign of grace if it comes from investment income, a sign of indulgence if it comes from labor. How dare players make fortunes for playing a game! the owners keep reminding us.

“It’s futile to try to change attitudes,” a spokesman for the Major League Baseball Players Assn. confided to me. The new economic thinking is so deeply entrenched that no politician even dare challenge it. As for the players, they almost seem to accept that they must bear the brunt of our fury. It’s the way things are now. Working people turn on working people, while the economic royalists laugh all the way to the bank.


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