With baseball riding the crest of a huge wave of popularity, despite its drug problems and high overhead, The Washington Post's Assistant Managing Editor/Sports George Solomon recently interviewed four club owners to seek their views on some of the challenging issues facing the game.
The owners interviewed were: Edward Bennett Williams of the Baltimore Orioles, Peter O'Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees and Bill Giles of the Philadelphia Phillies.
The issues and the owners' comments:
Compared with other sports, baseball appears behind the times with regard to geographic alignment, interleague competition and the fact one league (National) has 12 teams and the other (American) 14 teams.
Williams: Realignment should be done on geographic grounds. There is a strong feeling for three divisions in the American League. But in the National League, with its 12 teams, there exists a certain contentment. To get realignment, we need a strong commissioner. We have one Peter Ueberroth . The question is, will he stay? At the moment, he has an industry that is losing money. He understands the economics and has tried to do something. Again, I wonder if he Ueberroth will stay.
O'Malley: I think owners should be responsive to their fans. And I think our fans identify with the 11 other National League teams. I don't think they want to see the American League teams. I doubt if they could identify with those teams.
Steinbrenner: I'm for realignment because the present setup is silly. We often play more games against teams in the West than East teams. If I could play Boston, Baltimore and Detroit more than the Seattles and Oaklands, we'd draw three million people. We have a terrible schedule now because of 14 teams, which results in our playing so many games against West teams.
Giles: The National League should not realign. It's fine the way it is. The 14-team league is a mess. However, I am not opposed to interleague play on a limited basis. I once suggested to CBS, when it was looking for something unique, a home-and-home series between interleague divisional opponents NL East teams vs. AL East teams . But NBC and ABC did not want CBS to get any new wrinkle.
Many Washington-area residents reacted with enthusiasm when Ueberroth established guidelines for potential expansion cities and invited representatives of these cities to New York last November to meet with the long-range planning committee. Now, however, expansion is on hold and the people who purchased more than 15,000 season tickets in hopes of Washington obtaining a team are wondering what's going on.
Williams: The commissioner feels he has to solve the problems of existing franchises Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco before addressing expansion. Do you solve these problems by moving franchises or improving the management of these teams?
My position has been I will never do anything to prevent Washington from getting a baseball team. I tried to get a baseball team for Washington 1961 , but they gave the expansion franchise to someone else. It's a little bit of an anomaly about talking about expansion of an industry which is losing money.
The idea of playing half our games in Washington and half in Baltimore has never been brought up by the commissioner . It would only aggravate the people of both cities, anyway. What we need is a new stadium in Baltimore accessible to more people. The city has outgrown the stadium.
O'Malley: I'm for expansion, but before it happens baseball has to solve its problems.
Steinbrenner: We should be progressing toward a time frame. We've strung people along long enough and we should tell the cities where they stand. To those cities we rule out, tell 'em; to the ones in the middle, tell them to keep after it; and to the first group, tell them: 'We'll be ready in a year or two.'
Washington was impressive.
We want to iron out the problems in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle. If these cities aren't going to support the teams, then you've got to take a hard look. Some of us are getting tired of going to these places for a series and not making airplane fare. Over the next 48 months, we're going to have to make a lot of hard decisions.
Giles: I'm pleased to to know there are enough fans in Washington. I always thought Washington would be a pretty good NL town. But with three or four franchises struggling, it would be impractical to expand at this time. Washington's best hope, it seems, is if one of those struggling teams wanted to move.
Commissioner Ueberroth is committed to solving baseball's drug problems this year. What about the economic issues he and many owners say endanger the sport in the next decade?
O'Malley: For the game to survive, we'll have to see a better working relationship between management and the players. Salary arbitration and free agency cannot continue in its present form. The system must be addressed and modified.
Also, I think you'll see changes in management and ownership, with more individuals who can devote their full attention to the business. My family does not have a fast-food chain or law firm. The Dodgers get my full attention. You're going to see more of this type of ownership. There are too many demands for it to be treated as a hobby.
Steinbrenner: There's a tremendous resurgence in baseball. Without a doubt, it's the No. 1 sport in the country today, with interest at an all-time high. But we have to be careful of overexposure. The seasons in all sports run too long. When you're playing basketball in June and football in February, something is wrong.
Nor do I believe the television packages will be as good as they've been for any of the sports. The day of reckoning is coming. The sponsors will no longer pay the kinds of money they've been paying.
Williams: Some teams are in very serious trouble. We've drawn well since I've been in Baltimore he bought the team in 1979 , but we have a small market. Yet I forsee if costs keep rising, we'll be in the red in 1988.
Giles: I think we've seen the last of the large-scale escalations in television revenues, which means we are going to have to keep down escalations in salaries. Even though we showed some restraint this year, salaries still increased [throughout the major leagues] by 12 percent. If that continues, we'll all go broke.