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Perhaps stung by my criticism of its acumen, or stunned by its own ineptitude, Major League Baseball (MLB) has mounted a fall public-relations offensive. MLB spin doctors issued a full-page advertisement appearing in USA Today last week, attributing its 537 words to Acting Commissioner Bud Selig, a car salesman by trade.
Honest Bud and company remind readers of their unfinished season, interrupted by the baseball strike. They contend that “this unhappy situation is not about labor versus management.” Given that the Players Association called the strike and walked out because they could not reach a new labor agreement with management, Bud Lite is wrong at the most basic level.
Rather than utter a true statement in its ad, MLB suggests we are witnessing a contest for the very soul of our national pastime. The current labor/management dispute, according to the ad, “is about the game and its fans, about preserving our National Pastime and promoting its growth not just for today but for well into the next century.” At last month’s negotiating session in Washington, none of the 31 people at the table represented either the game or its fans supposedly at the center of this dispute. Both the game and its fans would have told both sides to cut the crap and play ball.
Ex-Commissioner Fay Vincent, in a rare moment of talking with a reason beyond seeing his name in the newspaper, said, “Labor negotiations are not a morality play.” Vincent didn’t want labor issues turned into a matter of right and wrong, since there’s little room for compromise on such moral issues. Instead, Vincent hoped players and owners would focus on tangible issues and avoid the kind of hot air MLB’s advertisement blows. Pushing for reason rather than rigid morality in labor relations helped get Vincent fired.
As for the great questions that MLB faces in the future, the advertisement pulls a discredited myth out of the past. “Huge payrolls,” MLB says, “impair the League’s [sic] competitive parity….” When free agency came into being in 1976, owners cried that the teams with the biggest checkbooks would dominate, and they’ve been crying louder with each recordsetting player salary. Yet a different team won the World Series every year during the ’80s, and 22 of the then-26 teams reached the playoffs during that decade. In 1994, two of the teams shut out during the ’80s were in playoff position when the strike hit, and two of the playoff position teams, the Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos, rank near the bottom of the team playoff standings. The small market Minnesota Twins’ two world championships in five years further prove that skill, not money, is the primary factor in building a winner.
Owners harumph at this evidence and shrug about things being different now, that money will dominate standings in years to come. That’s pure speculation. What’s been proven since 1976 is that freedom of movement for players equals freedom for teams to improve dramatically, and smart teams have.
According to Honest Bud, “Each [team] wants to put a winning lineup on the field for their hometown fans and attempt to sign the best possible players on their teams.” The San Diego Padres’ fire sale of players, owners’ collusion during the mid-’80s to restrain the market in free agents, and the current fad of emphasizing team budgets rather than team needs when it comes to signing players all belie that contention. In the current climate, teams even release players not eligible for free agency in the name of cutting costs. The game of interest to owners isn’t between the lines but the bottom line.
The MLB advertisement tells the truth when it says there are wide disparities in revenue between players. It continues, “This disparity makes MLB’s revenue sharing plan essential not only to preserve the sport’s rich heritage everywhere but also to keep it alive in baseball cities such as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Kansas City.” Those franchises, including Selig’s own Brewers, may be in dire straits, though MLB’s cooked books leave that contention unproved. Moreover, the revenues to be shared come out of fans’ pockets. Fans might ask why ticket dollars paid to their beloved Orioles or Cubs should subsidize enemy teams.
The biggest lie in this argument is that sharing revenue depends on a cost-cutting labor agreement with players. If sharing revenue is essential to keeping Major League Baseball “accessible, affordable and competitive” into the 21st century, as the ad states, then the owners should get on with it, regardless of the labor situation. Owners don’t need the players to approve the way they split the kitty. Owners have even gone out of their way to keep revenue-sharing plans a secret from players. The only link between revenue sharing and the labor situation is the phony one owners have created.
The threat to baseball as it approaches the 21st century isn’t the disparity in team revenues or skyrocketing player salaries. It’s owners and players who put their own interests above that of the game. It’s breaking the bond between fans and the game. Work stoppages and full-page lies leave that bond in tatters.
Birds on the Rise Last year, a reader wrote to me in full outrage because the Orioles wanted praise for not raising ticket prices for 1994. At the time, I just didn’t get it. After seeing the Orioles’ full-page ad in Sunday’s local newspapers explaining why they’re raising ticket prices for next season, I get it now.
The ad reminds readers of that promise not to raise ticket prices, and states in bold print, “We kept our promise.” The Orioles say they need the money to continue to improve the club’s personnel. It also says the price hikes of up to $5 are necessary to offset a claimed $15-million loss in revenue due to the strike. The ad reminds readers that management stated ticket-price increases would be necessary for 1995, implying the prices are going up because the Orioles said they would.
That attitude reveals the monumental arrogance that incensed that reader a year ago. In this strike climate that has left fans angry and betrayed, it takes even more outrageous chutzpah to ask them, in effect, to give any franchise a raise for a job poorly done.