Baseball hits new low in stupidity


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Baseball is no longer the national pastime. What it is now is a suicide pact.

Two years after their strike wiped out the World Series, major-league players finally cut a deal with management's chief negotiator only to find themselves in a game of bait-and-switch.

Another year of fruitless bargaining has ended in exasperation. Another round of Russian roulette has begun.

Whatever progress has been made to reclaim baseball's disaffected fans was set back to Ground Zero Wednesday with ownership's 18-12 rejection of the labor agreement made between negotiator Randy Levine and union chief Don Fehr.

Interleague play - baseball's most intriguing innovation since the lively ball - will likely be shelved for at least another season. Marketing deals valued at $500 million, contingent on a new collective bargaining agreement, are in limbo. The terrifying prospect of another work stoppage - and with it, Mutually Assured Destruction - is again plausible.

Determined to hoard the largest pieces of baseball's financial pie, the owners seem resolved to reduce that pie to the approximate size of a Ritz cracker.

Once unchallenged as America's favorite sport, baseball may soon slip from a distant second to a forlorn third. Its audience keeps aging, but its leadership never grows up.

Fans have had enough

There is a lot more at stake here than the hot-button issues of the day: service time and payroll taxes and revenue sharing. Baseball, like Bosnia, needs nothing more desperately than a lasting peace. To that end, a flawed deal would be far better than no deal at all. It would show an understanding by the warring factions of how urgent things are.

You would think the owners might recognize the perils of their position by now. The World Series just concluded drew the lowest television ratings since the event was broadcast nationwide, a 17.4 rating and a 29 share. (Super Bowl XXX, by comparison, received a 46 rating and a 68 share.)

The World Series was widely ignored despite a matchup of dynamic teams with national followings. Despite the size of the New York market and the reach of Ted Turner's superstation. Despite the Yankees' improbable comeback and several gripping games. Despite the real-life drama staged by New York manager Joe Torre and his brother, Frank. Despite baseball's efforts to lower the volume level of negotiations in deference to the game on the field.

Baseball's spin doctors diagnosed the ratings problem as the product of the Fox network's incomplete national penetration. It was an interesting theory, akin to tracing the market crash of 1929 to a scarcity of ticker tape.

If baseball is not as widely available as it ought to be, the wound is self-inflicted. The owners have allowed their product to be subordinated to the short-term interests of television networks at the expense of the game's long-term growth.

Post-season games start later, last longer, and consequently have become virtually inaccessible to school children in the Eastern and Central time zones. Ask the fans of tomorrow what they were doing when Jim Leyritz hit that home run off Mark Wohlers and the answer, invariably, involves sleep.

Wake me when it's over

Baseball has shot itself in the foot so often of late, its shoes are starting to look like Swiss cheese. The Roberto Alomar episode provided telling evidence of the impotence of the game's administrators, and the petulance of its players. Of the avarice and arrogance of owners, Wednesday's vote was only the most recent reminder.

Afterward, acting commissioner Bud Selig implied that a deal was still within reach.

''While we could not accept the proposed agreement as presented,'' he said, ''there is substantial agreement on a vast majority of issues.''

This could mean anything. Because baseball negotiations tend toward contentiousness rather than compromise, a single ownership objection might take several months to solve. Since Levine has indicated he would resign if his deal were rejected, it may be several months before the owners even have their bargaining team back in place.

That baseball survives is a blessing. That it suffers is a shame.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 7, 1996.