I must salute the author of the lead editorial in Saturday's Washington Post for his quick recognition of a hot topic. He took as his subject the current baseball strike, thereby remanding to their proper importance the fuss over Iraq's bombed-out reactor, Reagan's tax cut problems, and the Soviet Union's vexation with Poland.
But I must chide the anonym who wrote the article for saying: "The issue in the strike that has shut down the ballparks all over the country is not money."
No matter that the editorial rightfully points out that the dispute concerns the right of a player to become a free agent after playing out his contract with a team.That is merely the lofty view: The principle of freedom to sell one's services to the highest bidder of one's choice, which is recognized in every other industry. No matter how it is phrased, or how such words as freedom get into the argument between players and club owners, the gut issue of the dispute, the kernel, the bottom line, is money. Good, hard, wonderful money that is such an obedient servant in so many ways.
The players want their present free-agency status maintained because it has meant more money to them. They want more of the rocketing salaries that in 10 years have taken the average pay of $31,500 to the joy of today's $170,000 average salary in the major leagues. Understandably, they want to give none of this up, so gorgeous has been the money.Four of them are $1 million-a-year men, and of course others have ambitions.
And the club owners want to lick the present system, the free-agency thing, because they say it has gotton out of control, that it is costing heaps more money than it used to, with no end in sight. They even mention bankruptcy, if you care to believe club owners.
So the owners thought up a ploy. A team would hesitate to sign a free agent from another club if it had to compensate that team with a player from its own roster; not one of its top layers, but a middle-type player ranking somewhere below 15th on the 25-man roster. This is the deal they are trying to sell the players.
No dice, the players association said quickly. They recognized it speedily as a damper on the whole freedom-of-movement thing that had proved so lucrative. There would be a slow market for their talents if teams were forced to give up solid players in return. It would serve the same purpose as a conspiracy by the club owners to stay out of the free-agent market, an insidious gentleman's agreement. The players are no dummies about this sort of thing. They dearly want to keep their precious status quo.
So, stripped of all talk about doing all this, or that, or compensating for this or that, the argument that has led to the strike is uncovered as a simple money fight. If they seem to be arguing in circles, that is what it is all about.
The threat now is of a silent summer. Plainly, the 26 club owners and 650 ball players are playing a game or chicken. Who will buckle first? Owners such as the Orioles' Edward Bennett Williams, who is losing $90,000 or more a day in gate receipts, yet is tied to the inflexible stance of richer colleagues who can stand the heat? Or will it be the athletes who are now facing a serious money drain after wrangling those big paydays?
There are inequities all over the place. The rich owners are fortified by a $50 million strike-insurance fund, plus their $15 million mutual-assistance pact. The players are docked full pay for every day they stay out, and because their pay is telescoped into a six-month season, their salary is calculated like those figures at the gas pump: Pay twice as much as your pump shows.
For every lost day, the players lose two days' pay. Consider the cost to Nolan Ryan, the Astros' pitcher whose salary is $6,000 a day, as opposed to the mere $260 coughed up by Fernando Valenzuela, rookie pitching sensation of the Dodgers, who may later aspire to something like Ryan's figure, if he grows up in a free agent's world.
Who are the villains of the piece? Those greedy ballplayers whose average salary has almost doubled the $97,800 of three years ago? An ordinary utility player such as Dave Roberts who hit .238 for the Texas Rangers last year, yet demanded a $65,000-a-year raise? He didn't get it, went free agent, and got $250,000 a year, a $150,000 raise from the Astros for whom he is now batting .237. Dave Winfield's $1 million-plus salary from the Yankees is calculated at something like $2,000-plus per time at bat.
There is a wonderful old saying in baseball: You're worth whatever you can get. The inference is plain: no guns are held to anybody's head.
Where, then are the villainous ones? Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the club owners are not saying publicly what they must certainly know. But if they would give tongue to their thoughts, they would be confessing: "We are the enemy" and point specifically to such brethren as George Steinbrenner (Yankees) and Gene Autry (Angels), Ted Turner (Atlanta) and Brad Corbett (formerly Texas Rangers), who are in their passion for pennants bid the players' salaries out of sight.
It wasn't the players or their agents who went out of control in their salary demands; it was those certain club owners who refused to rest until they bought a penant, a tactic usually unesteemed in baseball anyway. The Steinbrenner type set in motion the pay scales the owners are now yowling about.
It was Steinbrenner, with all those New York millions to draw from and all those big-market broadcast revenues to demand, who set the style for the big salaries troubling the owners. Six years ago, he offered Catfish Hunter an unheard-of $3.2 million for five years, and topped that by chasing Reggie Jackson all over the country to sign him for even more. This year, he gave Dave Winfield $1 million-plus per year for 10 years.
Now he and his fellow owners are asking the players to take back, to accept conditions that won't permit such high pay; in effect, telling them to give back their lollipops or go ahead and strike. The dismayed poorer club owners who can't stand the heat of the big payrolls can search inward for the enemy.
The fans have shown that they don't care how much the players are paid. They may react a bit at first to the extradorinary salaries that are announced, but that reaction gets lost when play begins. In New York, Yankee fans are cheering Winfield wildly; he's playing good ball. Jackson, who isn't, is getting a big show of sympathy during his slump, an appreciation of past services rendered Yankee fans.
Bowie Kuhn has said that the owners were thinking of the fans when the clubs demanded compensation for players lost as free agents; that a team's loss of a good player was a loss to the fans. Kuhn said: "We have heard over and over again that the single issue is player compensation. In reality, it is fan compensation."
In reality, that is hogwash, and no matter how they describe it, the central issue is dollars and who gets more of them, not less.
And paying for everything will be the fans, who according to a statement by Steinbrenner on Thursday will see ticket prices go up if the ballplayers win this one. Again, and it does not disappear, the money factor.