Wednesday, November 27, 1996
No hordes at gate,
owners vote for peace

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Peace in our time. Peace, and it's about time. Peace unto the wicked. Peace for battered baseball.

Can it be true? Have the senseless stewards of the Grand Old Game really achieved an armistice after so many seasons of labor strife? Or is this but a temporary ceasefire in a Hundred Years War?

The collective bargaining agreement the owners approved Tuesday (on its second try) suggests a sudden realization that this war was no longer worth winning; that the continuing suffering outweighed the potential spoils.

Essentially, the owners decided it was better to preserve the institution of baseball than to destroy it with their determination to defeat the players. They realized it was better to gain some small concessions than to hold out for a pointless Pyrrhic victory.

Attendance is down. Ratings are rotten. Hostility is high. The owners knew they could not risk another work stoppage and expect to have an audience when it was over. They have been comforted that their fans were angry rather than apathetic - which is to say they still cared - but there was no telling how long that condition might continue. It's hard to keep the customer satisfied if he can't be sure when you're going to be open for business.

''Over the last six months, we've done a lot of talking to the fans, and by and large the biggest thing I hear is, 'Get a labor deal,'Ç'' Reds Managing Executive John Allen said the other day. ''I don't think they're using it as an excuse.''

Casualties of attendance

Before the players walked out in August of 1994, major-league baseball was averaging 31,612 spectators per game. This year's number was 26,889.

For every 20 people who went through the turnstiles for a typical 1994 tilt, only 17 showed up this past season. Ambrose Burnside suffered a lower casualty rate during his futile siege of Fredericksburg.

With peace in place, though, prosperity may yet be possible. Tuesday's deal provides for interleague play, baseball's most promising marketing move since Larry MacPhail installed lights at Crosley Field.

This means Albert Belle and Frank Thomas will be stopping at Cinergy Field next summer on the Chicago White Sox' Twin Terrors Tour. Belle earns credit as catalyst for the settlement after signing a five-year, $52 million contract with purported hard-liner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Reinsdorf continued to oppose the labor deal Tuesday, but in three weeks his ownership allies had dwindled from 17 to three. He was abandoned Tuesday as if he had arrived with a skunk.

''Actually, it's good for the White Sox because it dooms the small-market teams,'' Reinsdorf said of the agreement. ''There will be less for us to compete against.''

The rich adequately robbed?

Reinsdorf's argument is that the union's concessions are inadequate to solve the industry's biggest problem; that the small-market teams will remain a farm system for their big-spending rivals in the population centers. To a point, he is quite correct.

What limited revenue sharing the owners have arranged will not enable the Brewers to outbid the Braves. It will not make a meaningful dent in the disparity between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

What it should do, however, is inhibit the richer clubs from robbing the poor whenever they want a new pitcher. Teams whose payroll exceed $51 next season will pay a 35 percent ''luxury tax.'' Players will also pay at least $40 million in taxes, to be divided among the more destitute owners.

This redistribution of revenues will clearly not cure baseball's competitive imbalance. Still, it is a start.

''We can't get the salary cap, but at least we can control salaries,'' Allen said. ''If an individual owner has the money to (sign a player), go ahead and do it. But be forewarned that you're going to have to kick some of the money back to the other teams.''

The players, in effect, have conceded that the market for their services can survive some artificial controls. This is an encouraging sign. When players and owners can get past their entrenched philosophies, their haggling isn't nearly so hard.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 24, 1996.