Monday, October 20, 1997
Selig should ask for directions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

MIAMI - Bud Selig does not admit defeat. He does not acknowledge difficulty. He does not see what ought to be obvious. He is the acting commissioner of alibis.

"Baseball is headed in the right direction," Selig declared Sunday evening. "We've come a long way."

Oh? Selig's campaign for massive realignment - which was supposed to be only slightly less essential than oxygen - has led to exactly one team (to be named later) changing leagues.

Revenue sharing - which was intended to narrow the gap between the prosperous franchises and the paupers - has been so token that the disparity has actually increased.

The World Series is here, and baseball's broadcast partner can't wait for it to end.

"We're looking for four and out," NBC's Don Ohlmeyer said the other day. "Either way, that's what we want. The faster it's over with, the better it is."

Does Bud Selig see a problem here? Not that you'd know it. The interim-for-life commissioner sat in the Florida dugout before Game Two Sunday night and attempted to play pollyanna in the face of his game's continuing crises.

This goes with the territory. A commissioner's job is part leadership, part spin-doctoring, and Selig does about as well as baseball's current circumstances allow.

He is the ranking figurehead of a sport whose direction is drift, whose finances are faulty, whose labor relations define rancor, whose audience is eroding and whose very existence is a nuisance to a network that would prefer to show Seinfeld and ER Thursday night.

Money-losing proposition

Even the World Series, which matches two surprise teams following marvelous playoff drama, has a troubling subtext. Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga claims to have lost $30 million this season. Cleveland Indians General Manager John Hart said Sunday that his team - the first to sell out on a season basis, and two years in a row - needed to make the playoffs to turn a profit.

Three years after the World Series was wiped out by a labor impasse, the industry's long-running ills remain. The big-budget clubs have little margin for error. The small-budget clubs have almost no shot at winning. Unless the sport undergoes a dramatic and voluntary change - either significant revenue sharing or payroll parity agreeable to the players - another strike or lockout is inevitable.

"On April 1st of every year, you can't have a situation where 21 clubs know they don't have any chance," Selig said Sunday. "I think that for the most part, we've managed to surmount that. But it's there. It's real. And it's a situation of concern to a lot of franchises."

Concern? Calamity might be a better word. The Reds, World Series champions as recently as 1990, are slashing payroll with increasing severity. The Minnesota Twins, World Series champions of 1991, are a total of 91 games under .500 since 1993 and threatening to move to Charlotte, N.C.

Buying their way in

The four participants in this year's League Championship Series represented four of the five largest player payrolls in the game. The Montreal Expos have announced their intention to trade Cy Young candidate Pedro Martinez because they can no longer justify his salary. The gap between great and small grows with each new superstar signing. The Chicago White Sox paid Albert Belle more money this season than the Pittsburgh Pirates paid their entire roster.

Yet Bud Selig says it is too soon to assess the success of revenue sharing.

"Is it enough?" Selig said. "It's a little too early to make a judgment, but I would say there has to be more done."

He did not, however, say how soon or how much or how he might prevail on George Steinbrenner to share more of his proceeds with the poor. Selig is long on optimism but painfully short on specifics.

If baseball is headed in the right direction, it had better pick up its pace.