Thursday, September 20, 2001

Last thing we need is a baseball war

        Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been saying all the right things and, stranger still, acting accordingly. He has authorized symbolic gestures at America's ballparks and approved the donations for disaster relief. Bud Lite has stepped up to the plate at a perilous moment and become Bud Large.

        Now, we have one more favor to ask. What the nation really needs from its national pastime during the war on terrorism is a truce.

        If Selig and players union boss Donald Fehr can't swiftly strike a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, they should agree to extend the current contract by a minimum of one year. They should guarantee the nation that there will be no strike, no lockout and no more unseemly squabbling among baseball's many millionaires until at least 2003.

        We're in no mood for another round of baseball brinkmanship, and the game is in no position to be testing our patience. Not strategically. Not financially. Not morally. Two weeks ago, the thought of another baseball work stoppage was almost unthinkable. Now, it seems almost un-American.

        If baseball presumes to be part of the national “healing process,” how can it consider inflicting any new wounds on the nation's morale? How can it wrap itself in the flag during a crisis and then forsake its commitment to the country when a contract runs out?

        Answer: It can't.<

Dwindling market

        Even before last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, baseball's labor-management rhetoric had been ratcheted down to record lows. Selig's gag order and threatened fines had effectively silenced management. Without the traditional saber rattling of ownership, players have had little to provoke them. Though significant issues remain unresolved, both sides seemed to be mindful that the economic landscape was no longer quite so lush.

        Now, with corporate layoffs intensifying, the stock market in free fall and consumers hoarding cash, no business that depends on discretionary spending can behave as if it's in the midst of a boom. If baseball is not careful — if it continues to raise prices and extort cities during a recession — it will be courting trouble. If baseball is reckless — if it allows a ninth work stoppage in three decades — it will be courting ruin.

Moment of cooperation
        Selig has his shortcomings, but he's smart enough to know when the ground rules have changed. Wednesday, in a gesture both symbolic and substantial, he announced the creation of a bipartisan management-union disaster relief fund. The owners and players each will contribute $5 million to the cause. If this isn't a sign of labor peace, it is at least proof of improved perspective.

        Tragedy has not dissolved the disputes that have made baseball the most contentious of our major sports. As player salaries escalate, fewer teams can actively compete. Increased revenue sharing is still inadequate to level the playing field. These issues did not evaporate when the World Trade Center collapsed. They have not been solved since.

        Whether these matters can wait another year without decisive action is debatable. Whether adequate steps can be taken absent a new collective bargaining agreement is unclear. But if owners and players cannot find common ground during a national crisis, they should at least find the means to postpone their problems.

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