BASEBALL PLAYERS ON STRIKE / A SEASON HANGS IN THE BALANCE : Time’s Up on National Pastime : Owners Haven’t Got a Chance
They did not always make millions. Dave Stewart of the Toronto Blue Jays got nostalgic as the baseball strike deadline loomed, remembering when he moonlighted while pitching for the Dodgers by working at a warehouse, boxing nuts and bolts. Relief pitcher Steve Howe of the New York Yankees reacted similarly, saying, “If I have to pound nails for a living, I’ll do it. I’ve done it before.”
Working in hardware won’t be necessary. The players will win this rich-boy tug of war. The players will win and the owners will lose, whether the strike lasts a day, a week or a winter.
You cannot play ball without ballplayers. The owners will capitulate, sooner or later, bet on sooner, because without these particular workers, their companies cannot function. The business is baseball, but the American public will never indulge American Legion players masquerading as American League players. There will be no scab labor, not now, not ever. There will be pro baseball or no baseball.
How foolhardy it was for an emissary of the owners to suggest that too many teams are losing money, that in essence baseball’s big daddies need to cut off their children’s allowance. This insults the intellect of the players, among them Howe, who railed at management mouthpiece Richard Ravitch: “How do you expect us to trust anything you say when (someone claims) the Los Angeles Dodgers are losing money, or the White Sox are losing money, or the Chicago Cubs?”
Ravitch said, “I never . . . “
“It’s all a bunch of crap and you know it,” Howe cut him off. “You wonder why we don’t believe you, and then you try to tell us the Dodgers could lose money this season or next season or the season after that.”
At times it is difficult to argue whether we live in a time of prosperity when the Dodgers are dimming lamp lights in the parking lot an hour earlier, or when the Angels begin charging eight bucks for a previously free lunch, or when the Texas Rangers put 150 full-time employees on notice that their take-home pay will be slashed 10% on the first of next month, should their favorite players be marching in a picket line outside that door.
Yet, as the players’ union leader, Don Fehr, correctly put it, “If the owners have problems, they have to solve them, not the players.”
The players have a nest egg of $175 to $200 million in their emergency fund to see them through a layoff. They are not about to be scolded, in this day and age, that there must be a limit to their earning power, not by captains of industry who are free to make as much as they can wheelbarrow to the bank. It is not their fault that basketball or football players were such suckers that they fell for that salary-cap thing, keeping lawyers busy looking for loopholes.
This is why pitcher Terry Mulholland of the Philadelphia Phillies protested vehemently, “They keep talking about cost certainty, but that’s not what they mean. When they say ‘cost certainty,’ what they mean is ‘profit certainty.’ How do you think New York Giants’ fans feel about what happened to Phil Simms after the Giants decided they couldn’t fit Simms under the salary cap? Do you think they think it’s fair?”
Howe chimed in, “The players will never agree to this cap. Not in 1994, or 1995, or 1996.”
And pitcher Curt Schilling even got right in Ravitch’s face, saying, “By the way, Dick, what’s the number of teams losing money today?”
The owners are in deep sheep-dip, and they know it. Already, prominent ones such as George Steinbrenner of the Yankees and Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox have begun to buckle, calling for Ravitch to reconsider his strategy in forbidding owners to sit at the bargaining table. Steinbrenner appealed that people with a vested interest become involved, rather than “a bunch of lawyers who are the only ones who are going to make money out of a strike.”
Steinbrenner went on to implore Ravitch to stop insisting that baseball’s competitive balance could be in danger.
“He’s got to get off that,” the Yankee owner said. “Look at Montreal. The best record in baseball is the team with the second-lowest payroll.”
The owners are bending and will break. Peter Angelos said as owner of the Baltimore Orioles, he would be willing to pledge that no salary cap be implemented after this season, as a gesture to the players, at least until independent accounting firms could audit the teams’ financial records. What many of the owners dread most, opening their books, is inevitable, or else they can never prove their point.
Incensed that they are being treated like clowns who have no idea what it takes to run a circus, Schilling railed at Ravitch on behalf of the players: “You know one of your problems, Dick? You talk down to us all the time. You’re condescending. You treat us like we’re not informed and we are informed.”
The players will win this strike, because there is no turning back now. It was 1981 when Stewart broke in with the Dodgers and was paid $21,500, total. He recalled: “That was $13,000 after taxes. Living on $13,000 in L.A.”
That was why he took a second job, loading crates at a company that manufactured fasteners. But that was also the year major leaguers walked out and stayed out, for 50 days.
Stewart said, “Had the union not struck in ’81, the position I’m in now would not be as stable as it is.”
He is in the second year of a two-year contract worth $8.5 million.
The players will win this strike and the owners will lose, because the players have too much to lose. They are entertainers who will set their price, not be told it. The owners can take it or leave it. They will take it. Tomorrow, a week from tomorrow, a year from tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. They will take it.
Divided They Stand
How the players and owners differ on the issues that led to the strike:
* Free agency: Eliminate the restriction on repeat free agency within a five-year span if a player’s club offers salary arbitration at the end of his contract.
* Salary arbitration: Reduce the threshold to two years of major league service, its level in 1974-86. It currently is three years plus the top 17% of the players with between two and three years of major league service.
* Minimum salary: Increase from $109,000 to $175,000-$200,000.
* Pensions: Increase the levels for players who played before 1970.
--50-50 revenue split with players with a $1-billion total guaranteed over seven years if revenue doesn’t decrease.
--After a four-year phase-in period in a seven-year agreement, clubs couldn’t have payrolls more than 110% of the average or less than 84% of the average.
--Salary arbitration eliminated.
--Free agency threshold would drop from six years of major league service to four, but players’ clubs would be able to match the highest offer until they have six years’ service.
--Escalating scale of minimum salaries for players with less than four years’ major league service, but they could sign for more than the minimum.
--Acceptance by players would trigger the agreement clubs made with each other in January to increase revenue that is shared among teams.