The results on last year's baseball strike are in.
The conclusion is inescapable: For the owners, it was all for naught.
Baseball's salary inflation spiral--which was the root cause of the strike and its real issue--has not been affected by that battle that cost the average franchise about $1 million and the average player nearly $60,000.
When the last contract is signed and the last decimal point computed, the mean major league salary for '82 will be about $235,000--an increase in one year of nearly $50,000 per player, according to the players union.
Marvin Miller, the union president, says the dramatic upward graph of player salaries since the free agent era began in 1976 "hasn't changed at all." This season's salary jump, Miller says, "will be an all-time high," and even the "rate of increase" (between 25 to 30 percent) will, apparently, be comparable with the last five seasons.
Few, if any, in management disagree with Miller's appraisal. This week has been particularly discouraging for those among baseball's hierarchy who, in the wake of their get-tough, last-stand strike, dreamed of easier financial times. The signings of Gary Carter by Montreal, for approximately $15 million for eight years, and George Foster by the Mets, for $8.5 million for five years, have merely been the latest trickle of ice water to chill the game's spine.
The ever-increasing salaries are "like lava coming down the mountain at us," says Cincinnati President Dick Wagner, whose Reds have lost Foster, Ken Griffey and Dave Collins from their payroll, but still find themselves in the game's upper echelon pay bracket. "It's the worst salary explosion we've had. At some point, things have to blow apart."
Montreal President John McHale, who recently signed a .251 hitter (catcher Carter) for almost $2 million a year, says, "It's very scary. We're all betting the game will keep drawing people and that we'll be a winner. A great separation is coming in baseball between the haves and the have nots. All of us are fighting to keep what we've got. We can't afford not to sign players like Carter 'cause we have to keep them to keep winning. It's a continual Catch 22."
Of this cycle of desperation spending, Oakland owner Roy Eisenhardt says, "We are watching the definition of inflationary psychology in action. We rush to buy players on the assumption that if you don't buy today, it'll cost even more tomorrow . . . We are forced, out of a fear of failure, to do things that, in the long run, insure failure.
"I sense an instinct for constraint (among owners)," says Eisenhardt, who is cochairman of baseball's restructuring committee, "but we seem incapable of executing it."
"I get depressed," says Jerry Reinsdorf, one of the Chicago White Sox new owners. "These 26 clubs talk about how they're in a partnership, but then they act like they're out to kill each other . . . We're (all) waiting for pay TV to give us (back) a margin for error. Now, we have none. And that's no way to do business."
In this dollar vortex, the rich and poor are intertwined like the drowning man who drags under the lifeguard trying to save him. As Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters says, "Because of salary arbitration, everybody is linked. The salary precendents established by the few can be devastating to many."
At the other end of the spectrum, where resigned-to-defeat clubs are just trying to survive, let alone compete, the wailing is just as loud.
Laments San Diego President Ballard Smith, whose team has opted for a $3 million payroll and minimal chance of escaping the cellar, "After looking at all the numbers . . . we're almost better off losing than winning."
Smith says that if his team suddenly started winning, it might damage the franchise, because, with salary arbitration, "our payroll could go up to $7 million in two years." Smith doubts his market could provide the "2.5 million customers it would (then) take to break even."
Smith said that his franchise must draw 1,750,000 to break even with a $3 million payroll and that "we probably won't draw more than 1 million" this season. The team never has drawn more than 1,650,000. Smith said he wasn't sure his team could draw 2.5 million even if it won the World Series.
McHale estimates the payroll for a contending team at between $6.5 and $10 million.
So, for the time being, losing cheaply may be the way for teams like San Diego, Seattle and Minnesota to survive in the absence of revenue sharing, especially parceling of future cable television cash. When richer owners tell Smith that sharing with the baseball poor is "socialism," he says he replies, "Revenue sharing may be creeping socialism, but it's better than creeping bankruptcy."
"We didn't get anything out of the strike," conservative Buzzy Bavasi, president of the California Angels, said recently. "Our 'partial compensation' plan didn't do one thing."
Bavasi said some players are worth the big salaries. Eight days after signing Reggie Jackson (for $4 million for four years), Angel season ticket sales have gone from 4,800 to 12,000.
"We've got 3 million new dollars sitting in the bank drawing interest," Bavasi said. "Reggie paid for his whole contract in one week. But the price of mediocre ballplayers is killing us. A guy who's half as good as Reggie isn't worth half his salary. He doesn't get it back at the gate."
If the strike didn't solve the dollar drain, what will? Says Bavazi: "We've gotta do it ourselves."
Miller thinks that's already happened--illegally. It's the height of irony that, as contract figures spiral upward, Miller is screaming about the owners "colluding to hold down bidding on free agents."
Miller admits that "I don't have the smoking gun, but I have no doubt about the collusion . . . This game has existed on the basis of collusive agreements for a century--from the draft to the reserve clause."
The pattern Miller sees, supported by circumstantial evidence, is simple. He believes that no team bidding for a free agent has offered a contract for more than three years. And, further, no team has offered significantly more money per year than the player's original team has offered. Exhibit A in supporting this case is the testimony of Ron Guidry's agent, John Schneider, who says that none of the 13 teams that bid for Guidry at the winter meetings offered more than a three-year contract or more than the approximate $1-million annual salary for which the Yankees eventually re-signed Guidry.
Miller believes that owners have ignored other collusive possiblities. He believes that clubs re-signing their "own" free agents are free, under this gentleman's agreement, to offer a contract of any length or any salary (like Guidry's four-year deal). Also, if the team losing the free agent acknowledges it has no interest in keeping him--as the Reds did in not even trying to re-sign Collins (who signed for five years with the Yankees)--then, once again, the bidding is open. Finally, a team re-signing its own player, or trading for a player before he comes up for free agency, can offer the moon--as in the cases of Carter, Foster and Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt ($7.5 million for five years).
So, according to Miller, this is the scenario: The owners agreed to try to crimp free agency a tad. But, because they can never agree on anything, they left loopholes. Thus, player salaries have rocketed another $50,000 a man.
Owners vehemently deny collusion.
"The pattern on free-agent signings has to do with the lower quality of this particular free-agent crop," says Frank Cashen, the Mets' general manager. "The idea that we're putting a cap on salaries should be completely dispelled by what's happened in the last couple of weeks."
"If we're colluding," says Reinsdorf, "we're doing a hell of a bad job of it. I'm amazed at the salaries I see."
Oakland's Eisenhardt sees a "dialectic in free agentry. At first, clubs almost acted as though they couldn't re-sign their own players. Then, they realized that if you offered a longterm contract after a player's fourth (big league) season, you could keep him and he'd never go free agent. I call this the 'Baltimore Syndrome.' It's the model we, and others, have tried to follow. The result is that the aperture into the free-agent market is narrowing. The flotsam and jetsam get into the market. That's why their price is lower."
If this winter's round of salary growth is baseball's latest destabilizing news, then the sport has two counterbalancing trends.
First, the preliminary, perhaps overly optimistic, reading is that fans are not nearly as bitter toward the game after the strike of '81 as it was first feared. Clubs from Chicago to Milwaukee to New York marvel at how little negative feedback they have gotten this winter and how season ticket and advance ticket sales are slightly better than expected. However, as Peters put it, "Despite our good signs, I'm still very apprehensive. The fans who have sworn off us aren't making any noise. They're just quietly ignoring us."
Second, baseball is, in the words of Smith, "finally willing to talk about its real problems . . . and, in baseball, that's a step forward." On Monday, the 12-member restructuring committee will meet in Los Angeles and, on Wednesday, the game's Executive Council will meet in Santa Barbara in the latest of a series of high-powered confabs on how the game can be steamlined and modernized to shore up its troubled financial picture.
Among the central topics are the future role and extent of power the commissioner will have. And, inevitably, whether that commissioner will be Bowie Kuhn.
"I want to ask the commissioner some hard questions during those two days in California," says Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams, the newest Executive Council member and one of nine dissident owners who signed a letter at the winter meetings that registered disappoval of Kuhn. "I have told Bowie that I think we deserved better leadership than we got (in '81) . . . Maybe he'll say he doesn't want to run (for a third term as commissioner) and that will make the question moot."
Kuhn's supporters are also getting ready.
"When you have a lot of new ownership, everybody who comes in has a pet solution," says McHale. "We've got eight new owners (within the last three seasons) . . . and we're getting a bunch of wild ideas and a lot of volume (noise). But I believe a lot of these 'new ideas' are a smoke screen for the desire for power. They want to fill the vacuum that they perceive to have been left by (Walter) O'Malley as a 'power broker.' "
Surprisingly, however, the recurrent chorus among baseball's hierarchy is: Bowie's not the issue; there are bigger things to worry about.
"Kuhn has been made the fall guy for the strike," says Smith.
"He was told, 'Let the professionals do it,' " says McHale. "Labor relations were put entirely in the hands of the Player Relations Committee."
Kuhn has refused to defend himself or conspicuously struggle to stay in power. For this story, he declined comment.
The restructuring committee, which has commissioned The Wharton School of Finance to study baseball, is trying to take a cool, temperate approach.
So far, most of the public talk coming out of the committee is about innocent sounding proposals--boring but dollar-wise matters such as pooling all transportation costs, centralizing purchasing and marketing, having a director of television, and the like.
Even more ambitious suggestions are cloaked in lamb's clothing. For instance, Smith voices the common gripe that baeball has "five different power bases--the commissioner's office, both league offices, the PRC and even the promotions office . . . How is anybody supposed to make that work?"
The Yankees' George Steinbrenner wants a new and separate "chief executive officer" for baseball--someone with a big-business background. Williams wants the Executive Council to have greater power and serve as a board of directors. Owners furious about PRC director Ray Grebey's high-handed autonomy during the strike are big on direct accountability to ownership.
It's complex and, at this stage, vague. On each issue different owners line up differently, depending on what's good for them, according to Reinsdorf. No firm coalitions have formed.
"If you want to get away from rule by self interest," says McHale, "go to a Carpathian Monastery."
"The one question we have to face, and we haven't faced it yet," says Smith, "is, 'Just what sort of partnership are we in?' "
That, finally, is likely to be where the "restructuring" lines are drawn--between the baseball "haves" and the relative "have nots."
As one owner puts it, "This year, we're going to have four teams--the Yankees, Phillies, Astros and Angels--with player payrolls that are bigger than the entire gross revenues of a half-dozen of our teams. That kind of imbalance can't continue."
Now, after taking a two-month strike (softened by $50 million in insurance that won't ever be available again), baseball faces the reality that almost nothing has changed. Glamour stars such as Foster, Carter, Schmidt, Jackson, and Guidry keep gravitating to those same eight or so clubs with the biggest built-in revenue base. And, with the apparently imminent arrival of cable television in the megamarkets, the gap between clubs that gross $25 million a year or more, and those that work from a base of $10 million or less, may be further exaccerbated.
For over a century, baseball's ownership never has really defined the nature of its ambivalent partnership--half laissez-faire survival of the fittest, half communal comradeship. It's never been absolutely necessary.
Now, finally, it is. CAPTION: Picture, Yankee pitcher Rich Gossage limbers up for baseball's most expensive season. Mean major league salary for 1982 is about $235,000. UPI