Baseball got a most blessed reprieve last week when the players chose both a wise and modest course.
Instead of feeling the need to show their strength by striking on opening day, they instead decided to show their confidence and solidarity by calling a token strike now, and postponing the real thing for six weeks.
Throughout the spring, the owners have maintained both a tactical and a public relations initiative. They've played it smart, tough and united for the first time.
Their best hope was that the players would strike on opening day, thereby alienating the public which still has not had the time or inclination to understand baseball's new set of labor issues.
Players, who had not received a significant paycheck since September, could cool their heels while the public, and probably the press, pilloried them.
The owners, who have tried assiduously to precipitate just such a strike, could sit back during the least profitiable portion of their season and say, "Gee, we wanted the season to start on time. It's all the player's fault."
Now, the tight shoe is back where it has been for several years -- on the owners' collective fat foot.
The players have a strike authorization vote on hand -- their weapon is cocked. They also have shown a trace of conciliation by agreeing to play six weeks without an y basic agreement -- a notion which offends any union anywhere.
Slowly, the public is getting the picture. The players don't want anything new. The owners want to turn back time.
Four years ago, the owners agreed to an "experimental" resolution of the enormous reserve-clause, free-agent issue.
In the short run -- over those last four years -- the experiment was not only a success, but perhaps, the most enormous boon to baseball since the liely ball in 1920.
Every empirical measuring stick -- attendance, TV ratings, worth of a franchise on the open market -- has shot up.
Higher salaries have made players seem more glamorous. Yet teams that spent millions for free agents have gotten the money back at the box office more quickly than they ever dreamed.
A fan who thinks his team has gotten something for nothing can't wait to get through the turnstiles. A mere tit-for-tat trade is mild stuff by comparison.
Despite this, competitive balance has been helped, rather than hurt. Teams that have done little or nothing in the marketplace -- Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and St. Louis -- all won 85 or more games in 1979.
Clubs that spent big -- Philadelphia, San Diego, Atlanta, New York (Yankees) and Cleveland -- all finished fourth or lower last season. Big bucks boys in Boston and Texas finished third.
The conclusion seems healthy: spend wisely, as did Milwaukee and Montreal, and win 95. Spend dumb, as San Diego and Atlanta, and lose 90.
Spend nothing, but build smart (Blatimore) and go to the World Series. Spend nothing, but build dumb, (the Mets) and finish last.
The final blessing of free agency appears to be that, on the one hand, any team can transform itself quickly, wile, on the other hand, no dynasty -- not even the rich Yankees -- lasts long.
All this makes baseball owners crazy -- perhaps with cause.
They love what's happening. But they can't believe it will last. They've raking in the bucks at the same instant when, in their heart of hearts, they think bankruptcy truly may be around the corner.
Unfortunately for the owners, and perhaps for all baseball, labor negotiations are conducted on what exists -- not on fiscal palm reading.
The owners' current plea for a new system of partial compensation which would put a damper on free-agent madness and, in time, lower the whole salarystructure of the game, may well be a farshighted and absolutely correct compromise.
However, as of this moment, it is not backed by a shred of evidence.
The players can back their status quo with a list of debater's points as long as J. R. Richard's arm.
The owners, after all the smoke is blown away, can only stay that, as experienced businessmen, they can foretell the bust that follows a boom before it happens.
The owners foresee a recession economy. But they can't prove it. They see franchises failing. But the last-place Mets just sold for $22 million and enen the pathetic Oakland A's -- the worst imaginable team in the worst market in baseball history -- draw bidders both to move the team amd to keep it by the Bay.
The owners fear that baseball is sividing into haves and have-nots -- contenders and abominations. There is some documentation for that. Yet such clubs as Milwaukee, Montreal, Detroit and St. Louis have gone from the depths to the heights within the last four years.
Baseball will find a resolution.But, will it be after a strike that does far more damage than free agency ever could? Will it be after the bloom is off a blossoming public affection for the old game?
Or will that compromise -- that inevitable middle ground of every labor battle -- be reached before the players' May 23rd deadline?
One more fact is more improtant than all the technicalities of the proposals now on the table between Marvin Miller and Ray Grebey. Baseball isn't the only game in town. Everybody's health and wealth is tied far more directly to the game's general popularity than it is to who wins these labor arm-wrestlings.
Neither side currently seems to care what the fans think. Yet the fans' opinion is, in the long run, far more important to both sides than any single issue -- even the issue of whether there is, or is not, a system of partial compensation.
Baseball has had marvelous on-the-field luck for the past five years: vivid championship teams, historic individual players, payoff and postseason games for the ages, and exceptional pennant races (three of which went to the final week last season).
No season, no union, no owner, no commissioner deserved any significant portion of the praise. It is simply their great good fortune -- their dumb luck -- that baseball is now, and has been for a century a great, and unsinkable game that produces indelible drama.
Baseball may be unsinkable, but it is not undamagable.
For the next six weeks, both the players and owners should remember that the other side probably is right.
A form of partial compensation more libral than the one the owners currently propose -- perhaps a team's 26th best player rather than its 16th best as compensation -- would certainly work. It would quiet the players' rocketing rate of salary growth, but it would still leave them wealthy.
By contrast, leaving baseball totally unchanged also would work. Owners might need to learn self-restraint.
Partial compensation might even look wise to the players by 1984.
Or maybe it would look unnecessary, even then.
No one can pretend to know.
Both sides are left with one certainty. The worst eventuality is a strike -- a long, bitter midseason strike that breaks the game's century of essential continuity and leaves the lingering thought in every fan's mind that the game no longer can be depended upon as a faithful friend.
Any settlement will work -- for both sides. No resolution by Memorial Day would be like a fungo bat over the cranium to both sides. One which they would richly deserve.
Baseball has gotten its one reprieve -- its typical dose of unexpected luck.
It has not right to ask for more.