Yes, the baseball owners have taken out a multimillion-dollar insurance policy against the risk of a strike by the players. The owners might realize as much as $40 million from this insurance if a strike wipes out the entire season. That's almost as much money as the 26 teams would make in box-office profits if they played ball all year.
Yes, the owners have kicked in maybe $4 million, by a conservative estimate, as a war chest of funds to use against the players. Each of the 26 teams agreed to contribute 2 percent of gross income from home ticket sales for the 1979 and 1980 seasons.
Yes, the owners are ready.
"The owners are the readiest we've ever been," said George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' owner. "Now we have the capability to take a strike. We're finally set with the insurance and with the fund. We were never prepared like this."
The owners, Steinbrenner said in an interview this week, have dug in for the long fight.
"If cooler heads don't prevail," he said, having first airily dismissed Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's threat of a $500,000 fine for talking about the strike negotiations, "the strike could be a long one -- from the owners' standpoint.
"I don't think it could be a long one from the players' standpoint. When you've got players earning the money they're earning. I don't know, but I don't think Marvin Miller (the players' labor boss) can hold them together."
This is not to suggest that Steinbrenner is anxious for a strike. The whole idea of a strike is reprehensible, he said.
"If we the owners are stupid enough to let the players strike -- and it is half us doing it -- and if the players are stupid enough to do it, then we deserve anyghing bad that happens to us," Steinbrenner said.
"When there are prisoners in Tehran, when unemployment is over 7 percent, when hundreds of thousands of auto workers are out of work, when senior citizens can't keep up with the economy, when interest rates are 18 per cent and no one can afford to buy a house -- of all this country's problems, the least probably is a baseball strike.
"I repeat it," the philosopher in Yankee pinstrips said. "If there is a strike, we deserve everything bad that happens to us."
Well, two weeks from today those bad things may start happening.
And it would be fully the owners' fault, not the half that Steinbrenner is willing to take.
The players are blameless.
If the players go on strike May 22, as they have voted to do by a 967-to-1 margin, baseball fans likely will criticize the players as selfish brats not happy with an average salary of more than over $140,000 a year.
What the fans should do is boo the owners.
The owners, for reasons incomprehensible, have chosen to take on the players in a fight the owners have no chance of winning.
The owners are making an issue of the free-agent draft. They say teams losing a free agent should be compensated for that loss. They want a player in return for the free agent. They say that is the only way they can keep everyone reasonalby competitive; otherwise, the richest teams would hire all the best players.
Such talk is only a smokescreen, the players say. The players say the owners are not interested in keeping all the teams reasonably equal; they say the owners are interested mainly in keeping salaries down. Salaries would be kept down if teams were forced to give compensation for a free agent -- because being forced to give compensation would stop some teams from hiring a free agent. Thus, the free-agent's bargaining power would diminish, naturally reducing his salary.
The owners can't win this fight for one indisputable reason: They have already lost it in a federal court. In 1975, U.S. Judge Peter Seitz declared pitcher Andy Messersmith a free agent, ruling that baseball had no legal right to bind a player to one team forever. From that day on, every baseball player had legal precedent on his side if, upon the expiration of his contract, he wanted to bargain with all 26 big-league teams.
Instead of insisting upon the free-market anarchy that likely would have followed so sweeping a decision, the players in the 1976 Basic Agreement worked out a compromise with the owners: The players would become free agents only after six years in the major leagues and then could bargain with only 13 of the 26 teams.
Such an arrangement made great good sense. In the four years of limited free agentry, baseball has set attendance records annually. The game has been reborn. Is Pete Rose worth $800,000 a year to the Phillies? Well, the radio-TV people doing Phillies games immediately paid an extra $800,000 for the rights to the games.
If the public is turned off by increased ticket prices, if the fans don't like the idea that they will pay more for stuff advertised on those radio and TV stations -- if the fans don't want Pete Rose to get his $800,000, they'll stop coming to the ballpark. And so far the fans are coming in record numbers year after year.
What the owners want is for these millions of fans to keep coming -- while the owners reduce the salaries of the gifted entertainers who put on the show. Pete Rose is worth $800,000 because he produces that kind of income, just as Wayne Newton is worth $400,000 a week singing to old ladies in a Las Vegas hotel. As a Vegas singer has rare talent, so does a major league baseball player -- and he should be rewarded in rare fashion.
The owners have recognized this. Gene Autry, Ray Kroc, Brad Corbett, John Galbreath, Augie Busch -- all have paid millions of dollars for rare talent that produces millions of dollars in income.
But now, in a misguided attempt to maximize profits, the owners have declared war on the talent. They want an end to the free-agent system that has invigorated the game. By asking for compensation for free agents; the owners would effectively return the players to the slave system of old, to take the offered contract or go pick cotton.
Meetings are now going on in hopes of approving a new Basic Agreement before the May 22 deadline. The Baltimore Orioles' representation, short-stop Mark Belanger, walked into the clubhouse from such a meeting early this week.
"What happened?" eager players asked.
With mock solemnity, Belanger said of the owners, "They have agreed -- to put a whirlpool in every clubhouse."