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So You Thought Murdoch Would Limit Spending?

Remember the story of the scorpion and the alligator?

When the scorpion asks for a ride on his back across the river, the alligator says, “No, you’ll sting me.”

“I won’t,” the scorpion pleads. “If I sting you, you’ll die and I’ll drown.”

Swayed by the logic, the alligator relents. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings him.

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As they sink, the alligator gives the scorpion a bewildered look.

“Sorry,” the scorpion says. “It’s my nature.”

So major league baseball owners were feeling stung after Rupert Murdoch signed pitcher Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105-million contract. What did they expect when they admitted another corporate scorpion to their club?

Were they really persuaded by his assurances that he would be fiscally responsible to baseball? Did they believe that the head of a multinational, multibillion-dollar media empire who paid $311 million for the Dodgers--about $75 million more, according to Forbes magazine, than they’re worth--would blink when his player payroll reached $85 million?

Owners might be justified in their anger toward Murdoch, but it should not be directed solely at him. The Dodgers weren’t operating in a vacuum. Even San Diego’s John Moores, Murdoch’s most vocal critic, confessed that he offered $10 million a year for six years to keep a pitcher who will turn 34 before the next opening day.

All the Dodgers are trying to do is keep up with the Turners, the Steinbrenners, the Eisners and stay ahead of the Mooreses. It is that sort of superpower escalation that has created baseball’s wide chasm between the haves and have-nots.

Of more than $1 billion spent on free agents this winter, $718 million has been spent by only six teams. As a result, no more than half the teams will go to spring training with realistic chances of making the playoffs.

We in L.A. and Orange counties are fortunate to be among the richer half, but we should enjoy it while we can because small-market owners are certain to demand a new system when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2001 season.

The result could be a labor war that makes the current one in the NBA look like Grenada. Brown’s agent, Scott Boras, said owners always complain that the sky is falling when a new salary peak is scaled. The difference this time is that they’re right.

Big-market owners can head off the hostilities by agreeing to a revenue-sharing plan similar to the NFL’s, one enabling Green Bay to operate on the same fiscal playing field as the New York Giants.

It won’t be easy, however, to persuade men such as Murdoch, George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner to do that. It’s not their nature.

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The Dodgers’ deal for Brown makes sense only if he’s another Nolan Ryan or if they no longer care about balancing their budget. . . .

The latter is more likely. . . .

Last season, they told us they couldn’t break even with a player payroll of more than $48 million. By the end of the season, they were paying more than $60 million and, if next season began today, they would be paying $85 million. . . .

How can they afford that from their baseball revenues? They can’t. The money will have to come from another of Murdoch’s deep pockets. . . .

The only way the Dodgers can possibly pay for themselves in the future is by building a new stadium with luxury boxes. . . .

Surely they’re not thinking of asking taxpayers to help them build it, as the Padres did in San Diego. . . .

Why does baseball wisdom dictate that you don’t sign a pitcher for more than three years, four if he’s still in his 20s and truly exceptional? . . .

The Dodgers should be able to answer that. . . .

Only once before have they had baseball’s highest-paid player. Ten years ago next February, they signed Orel Hershiser to a three-year deal worth $7.9 million. . . .

There was no criticism of the contract by other owners because Hershiser was only 30 at the time and coming off a Cy Young Award season. . . .

He won 15 games in 1989 but, overcome by injuries, only eight in the next two seasons combined. . . .

At 33, Brown is already three years older than Sandy Koufax when he retired. . . .

For less money, the Dodgers could have had an everyday player, one of the best hitters in the history of the game and a proven gate attraction--Mike Piazza. . . .

The Red Sox made Roger Clemens baseball’s highest-paid player in 1989 by signing him to a three-year, $7.5-million deal. . . .

“If we let this ruin one day, or one week, of our lives, then we’re hopeless,” Clemens’ agent, Alan Hendricks, said 24 hours later upon learning of Hershiser’s deal. “Because at $7.5 million, Roger is set for life. How much more do you have to have?” . . .

Looks like he’s giving us the answer now.

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While wondering what Brown will be doing besides cashing paychecks when he’s 40, I was thinking: The Dodgers put their foot down when he asked them to move to Macon so he could be closer to home, blaming Boras for negotiating Brown’s high salary is like blaming Johnnie Cochran for getting O.J. Simpson acquitted, Chico Escuela quit too soon.

Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.


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