Baseball's problem at this hour is not dollars, by dolor. The whole taste of the game is in danger of turning sour.If the sport should ever lose its sweetness, how could that flavor be restored?
In the spring, baseball customarily wears such vestal robes that it seems a sort of national celebration of rebirth. Even the words "spring training" carry a pristine idealization. No sport trucks half so much in making a buck by selling its ambitence, its mood, its traditional associations even its implicit values.
For a century, the word "baseball" has had simple, evocative and seductive associations -- the whole mixed bag of blue sky, Crackerjack and perpetual youth. For the past five years, however, the game has progressively, and unnecessarily, changed the notions with which it is associated.
On the field, the game has not changed significantly; in fact, it may never have been in better health aesthetically. Taken purely as a sport, baseball may be in its age of gold. Off the field, however, baseball has not been so unpalatable, so consistently nauseating, since 1919-1920, when the Black Sox scandal bittered the game.
Baseball thinks that its major woes are monetary, when in fact, they are moral. In short, for the first time inits history, the game as a whole is giving off an aroma that resembles a stench.
Unfortunately, there is no difficulty in citing examples. And, just as unfortunately, there is little difficulty in pointing out the solutions to these problems -- solutions which, for all the wrong reasons, are not being implemented.
Most visible is the continuing war between owners and players over which shall hold the whip for the rest of this century. Granted, the stakes are large and longterm. And they are bringing out the worst in all concerned.
"In a lifetime of dealing with labor-management negotiations, I have never seen such hostility, such dogmatic unwillingness to bargain, on both sides of the table.More than any particular issue, that is what depresses me.There is so much bad blood, built up over so many years, involving so many central characters with long memories and considerable egos, that the word 'compromise' no longer seems to be in anyone's vocabulary."
This recent quote comes from one of the most central parties to the negotiations. It would serve no purpose to name him, or even which side he is on. The point is that, with sincerity, it could be said by either camp.
It would take a book to chronicle the generations of bad feeling between players and management, including lawsuits in 1920, 1951 and 1972 that reached the Supreme Court.
The result, however, is that players feel little compunction about driving owners to the wall. It's part of their legacy, their sense of the game since their first day in the minors, that baseball's ownership has multiple fire-breathing Cerberitic heads that need chopping. It would be hard to find an American business in this century with more feudal, and ruthless, labor policies than baseball, with its history of unilateral trades, reserve clause, outright releases without severance, arbitrary salary cuts and monopolistic restraint of pay, not to mention a minor league system that is still one notch above slave labor. Every baseball concession to decency -- and even the game's pension fund did not reach decent standards until the last 10 years -- has been extracted at knife point.
Too many owners, perhaps because they know their own history and have an unconscious guilt about their just deserts, opperate on the ludicrous assumption that the players are revolutionaries led by that Bolshevik Marvin Miller. Instead of seeing their players for what they are -- more young Republican than young radical -- the owners bargain like frightened aristocrats who have locked themselves in the castle tower while peeking through the keyhole to see if a guillotine is being built in the courtyard.
The owners don't give the players credit for being able to conceive of the game's long-range collective good. And the players don't give today's younger, more progressive owners credit for being able to act better than robber barons.
Each side could take simple, unilalteral action that would enormously improve relations, prove their good faith and instantly stabilize the game's economy. If they only would, this is how it could be done.
What the owners really want in this year's version of Armageddon is for the players to accept a one-year trail period for their partial compensation plan. The owners won't say this, of course. It's a matter of honor with them always to obfuscate. However, Ray Grebey, the owners' negotiator, wisely built just such a scenario into last year's 12th-hour nonagreement agreement.
The order of events (the owners hope) goes thus: First, the owners institute their partial compensation plan between Feb. 16 and 20. Baseball's brass will raise hosannas when this comes to pass, citing the "putting in place" of P.C. as the equivalent of inventing the wheel.
The players will then gather, between Feb. 20 and 27, to rattle their sabres and announce a 99 percent authorization vote for a strike. They will also name their favorite strike date -- on or just before Jun 1. Then, for three months, both sides will posture and pontificate, all the time trying to gauge their own real strength and the resolve of the other side to withstand a horrendous strike. Finally, at the last minute, since nothing in baseball labor can be done except under panic duress, the players will accept the final small-print provision that Grebey put into last year's deal. They will accept P.C. for one year, reserving their right to strike (and go through all this foolishness again) in '82.
Unfortunately, even if the owners won their latest power play in this fashion, it would leave baseball's labor scene just as venomous as before. How many pitched battles can the game stand on these threadbare topics that alienate more of the sport's fans each year?
What the players should do is give the owners what they want. But give it to them now. Give them their sacred game-saving partial compensation with style and magnanimity. Tell the world, "We're not trying to ruin baseball. This will cost us money by capping the rise in our pay, but we're making $175,000 a year. We can take it. And if it turns out that this owners plan is a scam and a con, then we'll throw a strike at them next year that will ring their bell."
In this fashion, the players could help the game, prove their good faith, and still show, by acting on their own volition rather than under pressure, that they remain the stronger and more unified party in the labor picture.
If the players association could thus dinstinguish itself by becoming the first body in baseball history to act solely because it was "in the best interest of the game," then the owners might be able to get on with the most important business on their private agenda: revenue sharing.
There are many forms of revenue sharing. They're all good and all needed. In a sense, there's no need to discuss them here and now because revenue sharing is coming, like it or not. It's just a question of how soon baseball's hierarchy decides to start sharing the wealth, NFL-style, and to what degree.
Even the players association is privately is favor of revenue sharing, not because it would mean a significantly larger total salary package, but because pay would be distributed more fairly among players. In other words, the Yankees might not be able to guarantee Dave Winfield $25 million over 10 years, but whichever millions didn't go to Winfield would end up in the wallets of some other deserving players on some other teams. When the owners share the wealth more fairly, the players will share it more equitably, too.
Arbitration and renegotiation of contracts have introduced a built-in bile to the cycle of every team's season. As salaries rise, plenty of players each year will not have the character or conscience to understand that their signature on a contract is their bond. It does the game no good that this steady flow of rich superstar is constantly begging for more cash, or wheedling for "extensions." We can only groan, "What fools these immortals be."
The negative net result of all this is that the entire baseball scene comes to be seen with a jaundiced, cynical eye.
For example is the disemberment this winter of the Boston Red Sox. In another generation, say, the '50s of Pinky Higgins and Pumpsie Green, this episode would have been seen as normal Fenway Follies slapstick. Instead of malice, we would have been satisfied to see incompetence.
Now, once again, Red Sox mismanagers have turned a contender into a turnip. In a kinder age, we might simply joke that the Sox owners lacked only two things: money and brains. These days, however, baseball fans don't get to take that thigh-slapping way out. Our noses are rubbed in the sordid particulars of human frailty. In particular, did the Sox really hate agent Jerry Kapstein (whom they once barred from the ballpark) and all his clients (Rick Burleson, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, etc.) so badly that they were determined never to sign any of them to another contract, no matter what the damage to the club?
The consequence of all this semirational ill will: instead of one team looking bad, all of baseball gets a split lip.
Perhaps the most serious casualty of this cancer is candor. Baseball, that idyllic game of our childhoods, seems to have lost its knack for telling the truth. To be a millionaire player or owner, you have to know hot to lie.
The owners, for instance, are not liable to give a basic honest explanation of their partial compensation plan. They claim, ad nauseum, that it is not intended to affect salaries, but only to help protect "competitive balance." Everyone knows this is ridiculous. The whole heart of the fight is about salaries. However, the owners are caught in their own trap of dissembling. If they admit publicly that their concerns are financial, rather than structural, then, in any future case before an arbitrator or court, the players can argue that baseball can only substitute its case by opening its books. And too many teams are still too rich, and have too many nice accounting gimmicks going for them, to allow that.
Once the sense becomes pervasive that the grand old game has a kind of mean-spirited gall-in-the mouth taste about it, then every new event can be twisted to bear the same interpretation. Baseball faces no greater danger than this gradual tendency for the whole thos of the game to be tainted with a sort of pollution.
The burden for baseball is the accumulated weight of all its nagging, negative tendencies. The game needs to stop worrying so much about its economics and its image-polishing and wory more about the basic values that is has traditionally embodied. Baseball has plenty of .300 hitters and 20-game winners; what it needs is not more talent, but more candor from its leaders and more open-handed good will among its rich, but petulant, factions.
The game itself is as suberb as ever. We are drawn to baseball because, while it may not always teach character, it usually reveals it.
And, in recent years, that has become the problem.