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It’s Time for Players to Return

The time has come for the professional baseball players of America to go back to work. To be magnanimous. To give the pastime back to the people. To make everyone appreciate them for doing something totally unselfish. To stop playing hardball and start playing baseball.

With one solitary gesture, sympathy in this country would turn overnight. Popularity of the players in polls would soar like a President’s after winning a war. All the athletes have to do is make an announcement that they are returning to play, right now, today, with negotiations with the owners resuming as soon as the season ends. Then, if there is no progress by April, they can stay away.

That’s all it would take--one concession. With a single stroke, resentment toward the players would ebb and the greed-is-good stigma of their work stoppage would be gone. Rather than having Brett Butler reminding the public how much fun the players will be having on the golf course unless the owners yield in the salary-cap impasse, player reps could proudly proclaim that they can’t stand one more minute of denying Americans what they want, so shucks, everybody play ball.

That’s all. All they do is tell Donald Fehr (or he tells them) to tell Richard Ravitch to keep his November and December free. When winter comes, the two of them can be locked inside a hotel ballroom and thrash it out until the morning coffee turns to tar. The owners can send in their 12-man musical-chair committee to kibitz whenever they like.

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Everybody has made his point. Fehr and Ravitch have been very firm and have achieved virtual solidarity among their respective tribes. Bill Clinton has said that he misses baseball almost as much as he would miss Razorback basketball and a federal mediator has acknowledged that both sides made excellent presentations, now when’s lunch? If only Clinton and Fidel Castro could come to terms, the Dodgers and Yankees could field nine new players apiece from Havana tomorrow and quality wouldn’t diminish one iota.

But fanciful notions solve nothing. Nor do “petitions” signed by fans that they will never attend another game, because fans have been pulling such stunts for years. All the athletes and owners ever do is go yeah, yeah, yeah, we feel terrible about this ourselves. But nobody is ever going to organize a fan boycott obeyed by 240 million Americans and a few million tourists, so give it a rest.

Only the players can end this thing instantaneously. If the player reps stood up tomorrow, said they weren’t breaking on this salary cap but were agreeing for a few weeks to bend, they would hear standing ovations from coast to coast. Customers would feel their dollars were going toward people who actually cared about them. Yes, the players do mean business, but wasn’t it nice of them to give us our games back?

No one will propose such a thing in New York this week, naturally. Money talks and bull takes a base on balls. When owner Jerry Reinsdorf asked what it would take, said c’mon, tell us what you want, labor leader Fehr volleyed: “Jerry, how much profit do you want?” The gimme-gimme nature of these negotiations is going to drag on until the bosses find some face-saving gesture, because the workers simply won’t budge.

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The strikers aren’t going sleepless on picket lines and wondering how they will feed their families. They aren’t manning a barricade like soldiers in “Les Miserables.” They are out playing golf. They can weather this storm for a year, maybe two. There are .220-hitting shortstops with more substantial assets than entire savings-and-loan associations. The players won’t return until the owners say: “Whatever you want.”

Just never forget that the players were the ones who took baseball away from you.

They could have refused to report in 1995 instead, but no. They ducked out on the American public in mid-excitement and took their bats and balls with them. No matter how unsympathetic you are to mega-wealthy overlords who pay the help, remember that the ballplayers were the pilots who left the cockpit of your Los Angeles-to-New York flight while you were connecting in Denver. You didn’t get canceled. You got stranded.

The players made it a point--a deliberate choice--to inconvenience the fan. They could act heroically tomorrow and make a game-saving catch. A billion bucks says they won’t.

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