The next time we're tempted to believe something a major league owner says, we should consider these facts. In 1987, big league baseball's profits were $103.3 million. In '88, its profits were $121.6 million. In '89, the game's profits rocketed toward a quarter of a billion dollars: $214.5 million. Nobody knows yet how much the sport made in '90 with its huge new network and cable TV contracts; but it was a ton.
That's how effective the owners' illegal salary collusion was -- $439.4 million in profits the first three seasons of their collusive ways.
Between '88 and '89, for instance, baseball's profits went up 75 percent on a gross of nearly $1.25 billion. The average team made $8.3 million in '89. And that's before you factor in the owners' biggest source of wealth: the radical appreciation of franchise values over the last decade.
The Associated Press broke the story on the owners' enormous profits last week with documents obtained in the wake of the players union's collusion cases. Even the owners don't dispute the figures. This has come as a disillusionment to some gullible sorts, like me, who have been listening less skeptically to the poor-mouth claims of owners in the last year. Shame on us. And wise up.
What blessings have the rich owners passed along to the game and its fans? They've raised ticket prices. They locked the players out of spring training in 1990, smashing the economies of Florida and Arizona over the head with a bat and running the risk of a season-ruining strike. They set expansion fees for each new National League team at an astronomical $95 million. And, at the moment, the owners are putting the hardball squeeze on 170 minor league franchise owners, trying to rip the last nickel away from these small-time, small-town operators.
The minor league problem, which may come to a head today, encapsulates this whole issue of big league greed.
You see, many bush league owners -- the dumb clucks -- are still satisfied with modest profits, or no profits at all, and are proud that they can, in the case of teams like the Frederick Keys, provide a night of entertainment to a family of four for less than $20.
Don't worry, says Keys owner Peter Kirk, before the big leagues are done bleeding the minors, those days of $1 tickets for children, $1 hot dogs, 75-cent colas and free parking probably will disappear.
"They're muscling us on every issue -- fighting over the cost of bats and balls -- and they'll probably beat us," said Kirk, a member of the ad hoc minor league negotiating committee. "What's sad is that the minor league guys will have to pass on the cost to the fans. And we may see this whole minor league attendance boom die."
"Throughout these negotiations we've been like kids on the playground having our lunch money taken from us by the bullies," said Miles Wolff, who took the Durham Bulls out of bankruptcy and built them to the point where Hollywood made a movie about them. "We haven't got much leverage. So we say, 'Give 'em the money. Pay 'em off. Maybe they'll won't do it anymore.' But they keep coming back asking for more. . . .
"All these years, I guess I thought I was dealing with people who were larger than life," Wolff said. "They now seem a little lower than life."
The major league side of the fight is simple, and, in theory, correct. The majors provide the minor leagues with players. So, the majors want a fair piece of the pie when there's pie to be shared. For decades, there was nothing to slice. Now, there is. But how big is this new minor league pie?
"The major leagues have an incorrect perception of the profitability of minor league baseball," said Kirk. "The Keys had one of the most successful teams in the country last year and we about broke even. . . . What the owners forget is that a lot of us in the small towns are fooling ourselves. We put in an enormous amount of time for very little return because we love being around the game. How much would they have to pay people to come in and take the aggravation that we bring on ourselves?"
Major league owners know that some minor league teams have been sold for 10 times what the owners paid for them less than 10 years ago. Minor league operators call this "sweat equity" and say they've earned every cent of it.
"There are carpetbagger owners, but not many," said Kirk.
Today in Los Angeles the minor league clubs may vote to capitulate -- and accept a new contract with the majors that they believe will cost them about $5 million in '91.
The major league negotiator, Bill Murray, interprets the data differently and claims the new deal would cost each big league team a tad of money. That is not the point. The money involved ($75,000 a year to a Class AAA team, for example) is small potatoes to the billion-dollar big leagues, but it's serious to the Prince William Cannons.
In all probability, the minors will fold their hand, take the offer on the table, hit the fans for a few more bucks and hope that attendance doesn't nosedive. As Wolff says, "All we can try to do is shine some sunlight on their firing squad."
However, if the bush leaguers get fed up and spit on the owners' offer, it would be a heartwarming sight. And all heck could break loose.
By opening day, Congress might be holding hearings on baseball's antitrust exemption. The players union might be in the courts maintaining that big league teams own only the 40 players on their major league rosters and that the rest are the property of the minors. The Red Sox and Indians, who have no minor league working agreements in place for '91, would be screaming bloody murder, while the Cubs, who have reupped with all their minor league affiliates, would have an advantage.
Weirdest of all, there might be 100 "independent" minor league teams, all trying to sign the next Babe Ruth, then sell him for millions to the majors.
What a wild and woolly war that could be. If baseball enters such a period of totally unnecessary and destructive chaos, we won't have to guess who's to blame. Just round up the usual suspects. Hint: there are 26 of 'em.