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Think of Someone Besides Yourselves : Keep talking, stop posturing in baseball dispute

At a time when major league baseball has given us one of the brightest crops of young players in recent memory, at a time when the home run record is threatened as baseballs jump out of ballparks, at a time when realignment has produced lively division races, at a time when the World Cup gave sports fans something other than baseball during the summer, the game has shot itself in the foot.

The players have their own self-interested logic for a walkout: the likelihood of an imposed team salary cap by hostile owners on the horizon. And because relations between owners and players are notoriously bad (an antagonism fueled, by the way, by the owners’ recent nose-thumbing refusal to contribute money to pensions), mistrust rules the roost.

The situation is so typical of baseball’s well-documented status as a dysfunctional family. Under the rubric of free enterprise and the American way, there is always some pious explanation for why the dollars ought to go into one relative’s pocket and not the other’s.

GET SERIOUS: It is time to get serious about changing the fundamental relationships. It is time to get the parties to consider first the interest of the game, and, in the process, the interest of fans. That will require a change in attitude and a willingness on occasion to give way to judgments by third parties. The time for this new approach is now.

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The two sides in the current dispute should begin the process by submitting their differences to binding arbitration, which is an idea already being proposed by no less an observer of the big picture than the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Peter C. Goldmark Jr.

Baseball’s labor differences are full of complicated issues for the long term. They include the idea of a team salary cap, which at least needs to be considered if teams in small media markets are to remain viable.

GET IMAGINATIVE: Goldmark, in noting that a cap is unacceptable to the players, suggests that “imaginatively reconfigured, the ‘salary cap’ could become a ‘percentage split,’ which is an eminently sound basis on which partners in a business often share profits.” How about it? The point is, there is plenty of room for creative thinking if the parties will think of themselves as partners in a venture rather than adversaries hoarding pieces of a pie.

Other continuing but complicated labor-management issues--the sharing of revenue among franchises and between players, the terms under which free agency is allowed and the conditions of arbitration for individual player’s salaries--may bend more easily in the light of cooperation.

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Whatever anybody thinks of any of these issues singly, the important point illustrated by the current impasse is that none can be solved or addressed adequately in isolation or in an atmosphere of hostility.

Baseball is a pastime and a unique business as well. But like any other enterprise, it must lend itself over time to creative and shared solutions. If not, like a poorly run business, it will lose customers.


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