Friday night: Comiskey Park, Chicago. The phone rings in the owners box and Jerry Reinsdorf, coowner of the White Sox, answers. He is having trouble making conversation. There are 27,000 people in the ballpark for an exhibition game against the Cubs on a rainy night with the game on TV.
The caller wants to talk about the state of baseball nine days after the strike has ended. Reinsdorf does not. "I don't think anyone wants to think about it," he says. "They want to get back to playing ball."
The crack of a bat pierces the static of the long-distance call. "Oh, my God," Reinsdorf says. "He's going back, back, he's against the wall. What a catch (Ron) LeFlorfe made! This place is going crazy."
So is the caller. "About the settlement . . ."
You have to wait a minute, Reinsdorf says. "Harry (Caray) is going to sing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'"
The caler listens as 27,000 people croon the lyrics, giving special emphasis to 'I don't care if I never get back."
They do an encore. "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here."
"You hear that?" Reinsdorf says. "That gives me goose bumps."
"What about the future of labor relations?"
"Listen," Reinsdorf says, "My wife says I gotta get off the phone and call down to the dugout for some runs."
The game ends in a scoreless tie at the end of nine innings.
After a trauma, there is denial. Right now, baseball's collective consciousness is working overtime to forget the strike that lasted 50 days.
Roy Eisenhardt, the president of the Oakland A's, says, "This has been like electroshock therapy."
In the long run, the strike may have a medicinal effect, scrambling the brain waves and thought patterns that created the breakdown. In the short run, as any doctor knows, immediately after shockj therapy, there is a temporary period of amnesia. That's where baseball is now. It won't last long.
Edward Bennett Williams, the owner of the Orioles, says, "We are on a tremendous state of flux."
Eisenhardt says, "I wouldn't want to take a photograph today and say this is baseball. It would be like trying to take a picture of a horse race. There's constant flux. The question is: Where is baseball going?"
There are many questions and many say it is too early for answers. Will the settlement have a significant impact on the bargaining power of free agents and the competitive balance of teams? Will there be new leadership in the top ranks of baseball? Will there be an end to an era of confrontation in baseball's labor relations? Will baseball, as Eddie Chiles, the owner of the Texas Ranger, put it, "restructure, reorganize, reposition and modernize itself so that it can be run and operated in fairness to all, players, owners and fans?"
"The thing we must dedicate ourselves to is not forgetting the tragedy of the 1981 season," Williams says. "It must never, ever, happen again. This may require a revolutionary change in the dramatis personae of baseball. There are many owners giving this deep thought. Fortunately, we don't have to make any decisions before the end of this season but it is on everybody's mind."
The jobs of both Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the owners' chief negotiator, Ray Grebey, may be in jeoardy. Both deny it.
"I don't think my job is in jeopardy," says Kuhn. "Goodness knows, I never worry about it. I always felt I was in baseball because I could be of service and not became I am bound to it as my only vocation. There's lots of things I could do."
Asked whether he would want to stay on for another term, Kuhn says, "I haven't made up my mind. I've been in this job 13 years and two more makes 15. That's a long time in one of the very toughest jobs in the country."
During the strike, Kuhn took a lot of heat from some owners, fans and media, who felt he had done little or nothing to end the strike, and others who felt had had aligned himself totally with management. "Of course, I sense some of that heat," Kuhn says. "It's a very normal thing to go through in something as bizarre as this. But I don't feel it in any appropriate sense."
Kuhn, who plainly feels that much of the media coverage of his role in the strike was unfair, says, "It is not the commissioner's role to run the Player Relations Committee" or the players association but "to use my influence where I think I can use it most sensibly."
"I believe in compensation. I said it and I stand by it. I said it was a 'highly desirable effort,' and that colors what effort I made. But that does not mean that there was nothing to do but sit around and cheer for the clubs to get it." Kuhn said he had used his influence to "get them to move toward a sensible compromise. That I did, that I'm sure was effective and that is not something you do on the front street."
Some in management say Kuhn is gone.
Others in baseball aren't so sure.
"I think the criticism of Kuhn is unfair," Eisenhardt says. "Baseball has carefully located the power over labor relations outside the commissioner's office. Then it makes the commissioner a scapegoat for failing to exercise his traditional authority.
Others argue that Kuhn created that situation by abdicating his authority, defining his role as the owners wanted it and not as he wanted it. "That's not necessarily a good idea," one owner says. "Then there's no leadership, unless you consider the player Relations Committee leadership."
In the absence of a dominant commissioner, according to one owner, the Player Relations Committee, "a small group of owners that did not represent a cross section of ownership, acquired a large decision-making power."
So, some owners argue, the board of directors of the Player Relations Committee may need to be reconstituted, too. In the past, the members of the board of directors were nominated by the league presidents and ratified in what had become a pro forma vote by the owners.
This year, Williams says, "I'm sure the winter meetings are going to be very exciting."
There are also prospective changes in ownership that may affect the dynamics of decision making in baseball. The owners approved the sale of the Cubs to the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday; the Phillies are still on the block. Both changes come in the National League, traditionally more financially established and hardline in players relations.
As one owner put it, "What you had is two clear groups of owners those who came in before '76 and those after. Those who came in before had a whole midlife crisis seeing the inversion between a totally owner-dictated game and one the players almost dictated. Those who came in afterward found the new rules easy to assimilate."
One effect of the strike, as Eisenhardt said, is to shock managment into realizing that "things are different whether we like or or not. We can keep the old system and become extinct or react to the future. You can sell the club or change. That process is now going on."
One certain change is the departure of Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association who does not intend to be around for the next negotiation. Miller, who has long been the owners' nemesis, leaves as his legacy a settlement that Don Fehr, his general counsel, says "won't have any effect on the signing of free agents."
Miller says the settlement contains several "freebies" that make it more palatable to the players than it initially appears. It took the negotiaters 50 days to agree on the number of players on the roster that teams signing free agents could protect: 24. Nonsigning teams could protect 26, with all others going into a player pool to provide compensation for teams losing free agents.
However, as Miller points out, the settlement specifies that free agents who have just participated in the reentry draft are "ineligible for selection from the pool and need not be protected."
That means, Miller says, that if the system was in force last year when the California Angels signed six free agents, the actual number of players they would have been able to protect would have been 30, not 24.
The system also works to the advantage of a nonsigning team. Last year, for example, when San Diego, a nonsigning team, lost Dave Winfield to the free-agent market, the Padres would not include him on their 26 man protected list, allowing San Diego to protect its 27th man instead. "In terms of the protected list, the settlement actually give teams a little bit more incentive to sign free agents," Fehr says.
Also, Miller says, the agreement specifies that a team signing three free agents "can't lose more than three (over three years). But everybody can lose one a year anyway. So, actually, you are only losing two for the three you sign."
'Great," says Reinsdorf, "I'm glad they're happy."
Grebey says, "It's just a matter of fair play."
The question is whether a spirit of generosity will replace the animosity that has characterized baseball's labor negotiations. Miller says, and Kuhn agrees with him, that the era of confrontation may be over. "That may be in the silver lining department," Kuhn says. "For the last 15 years, bickering has been a way of life in baseball. If there is one thing, I wish I had been more effective at during the last 13 years, if would be to have done something to promote greater harmony. This strike may be the key. It wised them up."
"How much more can the players want?" he adds. "They want to maintain what they have. It's hard to see them having any grand new designs." m
Miller says, "I think their eagerness to get at the players' throats is gone. I've told the players that I won't say the owners will never again make such a serious error, but I do predict it won't happen for long, long time."
"The confrontation has got to be over," Williams says. "In '76, we had strike one; in '81, we had strike two; the next one is strike three and we're out."
Baseball pushed its luck this summer. Although no one knows yet how forgiving the fans will be, there are some clues. On the way home from work the other day, Williams heard a caller on a sports talk show who swore he'd never go to a game again. "The host said, 'what about next year,'" Williams said, "and the guy said, 'I'm not talking about next year.' So, the host said, 'what about TV?' And the caller said, 'I don't want to give them the satisfaction of knowing I'm watching on TV.' So, the host said, 'what about radio?'
"The guy thought for a second and said, 'I don't think anyone will know I'm listening on radio, so I guess I'll listen.'"