Sunday, November 26, 2000

Selig needs real plan to fix baseball

        Bud Selig promises change and vows that he has the votes. The Commissioner of Baseball means to restore competitive balance to his stratified sport — no kidding this time — and his head count says he can make it happen.

        Trouble is, Selig seems to be counting only the heads of the owners. His straw poll is fundamentally flawed by its exclusion of players.

        Sen. Mike DeWine's hearing on baseball's economic plight last Tuesday reaffirmed Selig's commitment to reform but revealed no progress on the collective bargaining front. Union leader Don Fehr failed to appear — something about a family commitment — which left Reds owner Carl Lindner with a ringside seat for shadow boxing.

        Until baseball can convince its players the current system should be scrapped and some other arrangement will make them more money, Selig's testimony carries about as much weight as an anorexic ant.

Strike on horizon?
        Though he did not specifically say so, Selig's grim tone told you the 2002 season probably will be delayed, interrupted or destroyed by baseball's ninth work stoppage. It did not tell you how Selig expects to arrive at a solution.

        “At the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half our 30 clubs,” Selig said. “It is my job to restore hope and faith. I can assure you this system will be changed.”

        For 25 years, since the advent of free agency, baseball owners have forecast that the sky is falling and promised that their common purpose would put a stop to the problem. Yet the competitive gap between teams grows ever greater, fueled by the rampant self-interest of owners, the unwavering solidarity of the union and the unfriendly findings of the courts.

        The New York Yankees won their fourth World Series in five years with a player payroll approaching $114 million — more than twice what the Reds spent.

        A “blue ribbon” panel charged with addressing the game's imbalances has proposed raising the luxury tax on baseball's big spenders to stifling levels; wider distribution of “local” revenues (another burden on large-market clubs), and financial incentives to persuade low-revenue clubs to field a better product.

        In short, socialism.

        “The panel does not pretend to believe that these changes will be easy to implement or that they will be universally popular,” said George Mitchell, the former majority leader of the U.S. Senate. “(But) before the patient dies, remedial action should be taken.”

Drastic steps considered
        If the owners are to convince players that the “patient” is as sick as they say, they may have to fold some franchises first. Though it is probably posturing, this idea is being floated as part of baseball's bargaining strategy. Fewer teams mean fewer jobs — one threat that might get the union's attention — and eliminating unprofitable ballclubs would reduce the need for big-market owners to subsidize cash-poor clubs.

        Selig's goal is to narrow the range between the richest and poorest clubs so every team can have a reasonable chance to pursue the pennant at least once in a while. His obstacle is a players association that regards any mechanism to restrict salaries as an act of war.

        Selig has to know you don't win a war with a show of hands, but with a show of force.


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