If Belle's deal suited Sox, it sickened others

Now that the going rate for slugging sociopaths has reached $10 million per year, it is time to consider the consequences.

The trickle-down effect of the Albert Belle signing projects as a downpour of red ink. In raising the ceiling on baseball salaries to eight digits annually, Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has increased every club's costs and made himself millionaire non grata among his fellow owners.

Two weeks after lobbying against a labor deal that would have reduced the squeeze on small-market franchises, Reinsdorf has further widened the gap between baseball's rich and poor by giving Belle a contract worth $52.5 million over the next five years.

''I've got to admit, I was pretty amazed,'' said John Allen, the Reds managing executive. ''Especially coming from him.''

Reinsdorf has been accused of hypocrisy in this matter, but his actions have been entirely consistent. He has always acted in his own best interests, regardless of the impact on his fellow franchisees. He preaches fiscal restraint when it suits his purpose, and profligacy when it might put people in the seats. This is to be expected. Reinsdorf operates the White Sox for profit, after all, not philanthropy.

You want to see selflessness in baseball? Look for a sacrifice bunt with a runner at first base and no outs. Otherwise, it's every man for himself.

''Economically, if I was in his shoes, I would have done the same thing,'' Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said of Reinsdorf. ''I don't think there's anything wrong with spending the money to have a chance to win. Albert Belle is the best power hitter in our game the last five years. I don't know why there should be an outcry.''

Demanding a recount

Bowden's view of Reinsdorf is comparatively benign among baseball management. Acting Commissioner Bud Selig, who has served primarily as Reinsdorf's stooge during his interminable interim administration, was so bombarded by complaints about the Belle deal that he scheduled an ownership meeting for next Tuesday in Chicago.

Presumably, the labor deal Reinsdorf helped scuttle will be revisited at that time. Some owners may consider changing their votes simply to force the White Sox to pay the luxury tax that would be triggered by their new left fielder's addition to the payroll.

The Reds' Allen still doubts the rejected collective bargaining agreement can gain the three-fourths majority required for approval. He declined to reveal his own voting inclinations, but sounded like a man eager for a settlement.

''My overall perspective on it is that in all the previous labor negotiations, I don't think owners got a lot out of them,'' he said. ''With this agreement, the owners finally started to get some concessions. No, they didn't get a salary cap, but there is a luxury tax and revenue sharing. Maybe it wasn't giant leaps, but it was baby steps in the right direction.''

Economic gulf widens

About the only positive spin to the Belle signing, Allen said, was ''if there is interleague play, maybe Albert Belle could sell a few tickets for us.''

Interleague play, of course, depends on getting a labor deal done. So, too, do several of baseball's small-market franchises. Stuck in a system in which player salaries are based on the going rate in the big cities rather than individual budgets, clubs are increasingly forced to dump payroll in order to stay solvent. The trend grows more troubling with each splashy signing.

Told Wednesday that pitcher John Smoltz had decided to stay with the Atlanta Braves for $31 million over four years, Bowden's wince could be heard through the telephone wire.

''Can I get off the floor now?'' he asked.

''People are not going to be able to compete with the way this is going,'' Bowden continued. ''What it shows is we have a need for a small market league and a big market league. Forget American and National. Put all the small and middle markets in one league and all the big markets in the other league.''

Has it come to that? Not yet. But it's headed there at a high speed. Baseball, in its present form, is a belt-high fastball to Albert Belle. Bound for destruction.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 21, 1996.