"No balls, one strike," was how Max Robinson of ABC's Nightly News recently described the state of major league baseball. He may wind up being half right.
I think we'll definitely see a strike at 12:01 a.m. May 23, the date the Major League Players Association has set for another strike if an agreement isn't reached by then.
While the central problem seems to be the "free-agent" issue, most comments mention the same item -- money. Consider this quote from Steve Garvey, the Los Angeles Dodger first baseman: "I think we should face the issue right now. If we wait until the season has started, there'll be too many other matters. It will cost us money."
Or this from Al Campanis, the Dodger general manager: "A strike would cost us $200,000 in admissions. Those final exhibition games are like regular-season games -- big ones."
Garvey's sentiments refer to artificial ceilings placed on players' salaries if an owner is assured compensation when losing a player through the free-agent system. The rationale here is that an owner would be more reluctant to pay out those high salaries to a free agent if he also had to give up a player (or players) as compensation to the free agent's previous team.
Owners always can pass on their increased salary expense to fans and television networks. A player has no such recourse. He is stuck with what he bargains for.
In fact, playing the devil's advocate for a moment, if I were a team owner I would have locked out the players on April 9 when the regular season began. The owners should have for three reasons: the players need their salaries more than the owners need their meager early-ticket sales; technically, the players who strike are in violation of their contracts, and, most important, public sentiment rests with the owners.
Conversely, if I were a player and I truly believed my position were just, I would strike for as long as it took to settle matters. My view as a player would be that the owners are likely to look upon any hiatus in a strike as a ploy to protect my salary. After all, if I don't play, I don't get paid.
Sooner or later, this confrontation was about to surface. Some owners still don't like the free-agent system and feel that it still hasn't really been tested. And I cannot think of a better time, psycholigically, to test the resolve of the players than right now.
The average Joe paying for gasoline at $1.50 per gallon, and living with inflation at 17 percent per year, has little sympathy with the players. Those salaries, he feels, partly come out of his pocket.
Putting aside the money issue, one also would be hard-pressed to find an owner who viewed a player as an equal. A player to him is basically an employe; someone who signs a personal services contract to play baseball for a certain period of time for a certain salary.
Owners of baseball teams are not on salary. Their income is likely to come in the form of municipal bonds, interest and percentages of profit. You don't become a major league baseball owner by subsisting on a salary -- no matter how big it is.
In the face of all this, the players must rely strongly on one thing and one thing only -- unity. Their vote to strike was 967-1. But if that one negative vote were from a Pete Rose or a Willie Stargell it wasn't), then in effect the vote is more like 952-16. One Rose or one Stargell is easily worth 15 benchwarmers.
Back in 1973, we tennis players went on strike at Wimbledon. At issue was Wimbledon's decision to uphold a suspension of one of our Association of Tennis Professionals members, Nikki Pilic. We spent the better part of two board meetings deciding whether or not to strike. And the single most important factor discussed was whether or not the top 10 players would support it. All but one went along and we succeeded.
In principle, I have to side with the players. Not because I'm a player, but because Steve Garvey is right. The owners are just testing the new baseball millionaires to see if they have any compassion for their less-fortunate brethren.
There is no way I can be convinced that a free agent is really free if an owner is entitled to compensation. If this were the case, "ransomed agent" might better decide the state of affairs. When President Lincoln freed my great-great grandfather, the U.S. Treasury wasn't forced to indemnify his owner.
What some fans fail to realize is that not all owners want to play the free-agent game. In their businesses, the laws of supply and demand operate for everybody. It's okay for Bunker Hunt to corner the silver market but it's not okay for one owner with deep pockets to buy up all the good players.
Even though public opinion is against them, the players are right. Their cause is just. No one should have artificial ceilings placed on his earning power. If you really think the players make too much money, the solution for you is simple: stop buying tickets and stop watching the games on television.