This week, the Baltimore Orioles and other Major League Baseball (MLB) teams asked their season-ticket holders for down payments on a 1995 season whose existence remains in doubt. To their credit, and perhaps in response to at least one suit from a disgruntled season subscriber, the Orioles as late as Monday afternoon were still considering rescinding the cash call.
In the event that strikebreakers are fielded next April, the Orioles are promising season-ticket holders full refunds for the asking. The Orioles also promise not to retaliate against those ticket buyers by depriving them of their future season-ticket privileges. Other teams are being less generous. The Orioles haven’t worked out the mechanics of the policy, says a team official, because “this organization—up and down the line—doesn’t want to think about using scabs or replacement players.”
The Orioles may not want to think about putting minor-league players in major-league parks, but the owners’ strategy is predicated on it. The rounds of talks and flurry of proposals and counterproposals in advance of the Dec. 20 deadline for tendering contracts is unlikely to end the strike.
The decision to proceed with season-ticket sales is another phase of the owners’ business-as-usual ploy that’s included managerial changes, free agent signings, the annual Rule V draft, and blockbuster trades (Jose Canseco to the Red Sox). Don’t be surprised if there’s even a new commissioner tapped in early 1995. With or without a strike settlement, the owners appear intent on staging a 1995 season.
If the strike continues, here’s the tortured path to opening day. The owners impose their own new labor system, which may include a couple of concessions to players—such as free agency after fewer than the current six years and a more palatable form of the salary cap. The players’ union then marches into court, charging unfair labor practices. The courts may grant the players a temporary injunction against that revamped compensation system.
The players will also open a second front against the owners on Capitol Hill, where the new Republican Congress may be less inclined to protect the antitrust exemption than owners assume. Some individual owners have relationships with individual members of Congress, such as Commissioner Bud “Lite” Selig and Sen. Herb Kohl (R-Wis.), an owner of basketball’s Milwaukee Bucks. Overall, though, the owners have no constituency, and the free-market bent of the Newt Generation is likely to work in the players’ favor. Most importantly, with the House agenda filled with the Contract With America for the first 100 days, Congress will be occupied with important matters through opening day.
Even if the courts rule against them, the owners will open spring training camps, ostensibly for the 150 or so minor-leaguers who each team has under contract and who are not party to this strike. Several owners, most notably Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, hope the players will cave, breaking the union and moving the players’ salaries a decimal point to the left.
A few major-leaguers might cross the picket line, and a host of ex-major-leaguers want another shot at glory. Doug Sisk has said he’ll play. You remember Doug Sisk, a reliever who treated opposing batters to a .306 average when he hurled for the godawful 1988 Orioles and is now 37 years old.
The rest of these scab team rosters will likely consist of below-Triple A players. Players just a step below the majors won’t risk their ability to make as much money as the current major-leaguers do. They also will realize they’ll be marked men once the strike ends; a month of major-league meal money isn’t worth a career of beanballs, burned gloves, and sawed-off spikes. Even prospects at the A and Double A level will likely refuse to cross the picket line, and at their salaries, a lockout can’t scare them.
Fielding A and Double A players will embarrass everyone but the owners, who insist that the players settle and finance their internal revenue sharing dispute, repeatedly cook their books to invent losses, and have proven themselves beyond mere shame.
Owners bent on total victory can argue to their brethren that they’ve got nothing left to lose by seeing the strike through and employing scabs. The hard-liners will contend that replacement teams won’t reduce the value of franchises any more than another year without baseball. Meanwhile, the strike has given owners a pretext to downsize their front offices, and even if they’re forced to cut ticket prices, they will have sliced payrolls from an average of $25 million to a figure closer to $5 million per team. In the best-case scenario, owners emerge with a leaner, albeit inferior, product, and the public buys it. At least one poll shows the public saying it would attend as many games as before the strike. Hard-liners may fail to realize how many of the people polled were using zero as their base number.
The players’ response to scab ball will not be a league of their own. They like the old league, where they take no financial risks, make six-figure-minimum salaries, and average close to a million dollars per annum. Having waited this long, most players will wait another few weeks to salvage some of the system.
Only by threatening to play with or without the strikers can the owners demonstrate that the good old days are gone. My crystal ball predicts a strike settlement, with something that looks, tastes, and smells like a salary cap, within a week of opening day.
Details of the settlement are less important than the impending sea change in owners’ spending psychology. By bringing the game to a halt, stopping the money machine, and bringing fellow owners into the bunker with them, the hard-liners may also convince the rest of the lodge that it was, is, and always has been stupid to pay any player $5 million a year, a fact that will have a bigger long-term impact on the business than any salary cap.
Whatever the circumstances, opening day 1995 will be a whole new ballgame.