Baseball, the little game that cried "wolf," is in danger of getting eaten by a big, bad labor strike.
Maybe that's just what baseball deserves.
Throughout the sport, the word has been put out in the last week that this year there's really going to be a strike.
We are told that this isn't like all those other times when everybody got into a hand-wringing tizzy for fear that the precious national pastime was going to do itself harm. This time there won't be an 11th-hour settlement that leaves doomsayers with egg on their faces and gives the game bonus publicity and larger profits.
"It's never looked this bleak before," said a source close to the federal mediator's office.
"I am prepared to say that a strike is a real possibility," Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said. "The danger is that the union may miscalculate the resolve of the clubs. The ball is an (union leader) Marvin Miller's court."
"We have made serious proposals, but management has split on them," retorted Miller. "Obviously, their deadline for rolling the cards hasn't arrived yet. They've decided to stonewall until the next-to-the-last minute again."
"I've never seen the owners so solid and unified. I don't know of any with faint hearts," said owners' negotiator Ray Grebey. "They're tired of the union's back-of-the-hand treatment. When the popcorn box is empty and you ask if you could please have the kernels left in the bottom and somebody punches you in the face for your trouble, it tends to toughen your position."
When the strike crisis is all over, will Grebey go to a game on July 4?
"The Fourth of July might be too soon," said Grebey. "How about next year?"
As we see, everybody on the scene is waving his arms trying to grab the public's attention.
In the past, this has aroused concern from fans who, if they cared little for profit-gouging owners or overpaid players, at least had vast interest in the "health of baseball."
However, any amount of goodwill can be eroded. The time is coming, and may be at hand, when the sporting public's reaction to the alarm call of a strike will be a resounding: "Who cares? Go on and strike. Get it out of your system. Baseball will go on. But, maybe, if we're lucky, some of you clowns will be gone."
Baseball has reached the point where it is so poisoned with bad blood that the only way to improve the game's venomous labor situtation may be to have a large bloodletting on May 29.
And that (plus a horselaugh) may be what baseball has earned.
Nobody in the game wants to hear this truth, but the likely fact of the matter is that neither side could stand up to a strike that lasts more than two weeks, or a month at the outside. A strike wouldn't mean the end of baseball; it might, at worst, mean the end of baseball in June 1981.
The reason players couldn't weather a long strike is that it would be so stupid. They've got the world by the bat rack with their $175,000-a-year average salary. Last year the game's star players hung together, vowing their willingness to sacrifice at the clip of thousands of dollars a game just so future big leaguers might have an equal opportunity to be millionaires. However, in a prolonged strike, every player would have to answer the hard question, "Who am I doing this for?"
Owners, despite their vaunted strike insurance, which sources place at least as high as $50 million and which Grebey says approaches $70 million," could not endure a season-killing strike either. If owners do force the players to strike, by maintaining their hard-line approach, they will do so in the certainty that it will cost them millions of dollars -- millions they assume they'll get back in the long run through lower player salaries.
At the heart of baseball's current impasse is, bizarrely enough, last May's impasse. The bullheads on both sides are still trying to prove who won last year. The owners want to claim that they "won" partial compensation in that battle, while the union claims that, so long as it retained its right to strike over that issue, it had surrendered nothing. Each side thinks a "victory" in '81 can give them a retroactive win in '80. It's tough to negotiate when you're as concerned about rewriting past history as creating new history.
Miller insists on continuing his child's game of humiliating baseball's moguls with smarty-pants proposals intended to do nothing except embarrass his foes. In the long run, Miller may have made enemies who hate him so much they will "take a strike," just to beat him.
"When Marvin allowed partial compensation into the agreement last year, he had to know that it was a significant move," said Kuhn. "Marvin knew eventually he'd have to reckon with compensation. Now, the time's come."
That seems to be the case.
"We have agreed to discuss compensation, as long as it is done in a way that does not significantly affect the bargaining power of free agents or the general salary structure of all players," said Miller.
"The owners keep saying that their system would, in the last three years, have affected only 16 free agents. If that's really what they're after -- and we don't believe it -- we'd be willing to talk along those lines.
"If they would set meaningful statistical criteria for what they mean by 'premium free agents,' then the way may be open for them to get compensation. If, as they claim, they're only concerned about the Lynns, Winfields and Roses, then we can talk."
Conceivably, the biggest theoretical obstacle in the baseball war may already have been surmounted; the union no longer claims that the term "partial compensation" is an unacceptable profanity. The struggle will be long and dirty to decide just how "partial" that compensation will be. But this should be a manageable, negotiable issue, now that the players have admitted (or come extremely close to admitting) that it is a valid point for discussion.
Having come this far, if baseball cannot haggle its way to a tolerable compromise, then let 'em strike. Like spoiled children on a playground, the owners and players have been talking big for years about how tough they are. If they're determined to prove it, let them. It could provide baseball with its best month of hardball in a hundred Junes.