As Major League Baseball careens toward an opening day without major-league players, the owners and striking players remain locked in a mutual suicide pact preventing a settlement. Even if an injunction temporarily suspends the strike, the players are ready to give up a collective $1 billion in salaries rather than accept the owners’ terms. And the owners seem perfectly willing to risk dropping the combined value of their franchises from $3 billion to zero, as long as they do it together.
Baltimore Orioles owner Pete Angelos is different: He’s made a suicide pact with himself.
Angelos has put the gun to his own head by declaring that his Orioles, unlike the other 27 big-league clubs, will not field a so-called replacement team. “We have taken that position on sound business and legal grounds,” says Joe Foss, the Orioles’ vice chairman for business and finance. “Mr. Angelos believes in the position with tremendous fervor. We don’t think it’s in the best long-term financial interest of the Orioles franchise to participate in a fraud on our fans.”
To bolster Angelos’ stance, the Orioles cite a January poll of 500 season-ticket holders showing that 80 percent would prefer no games to replacement games. Poll results indicate that the club’s current 94 percent favorable rating (despite the strike) would drop to 17 percent if the club fielded a replacement team. An eye-opening 82 percent said they would rather see the Orioles forfeit games than use replacement players.
“The quest for….”replacement players’ makes a mockery of Major League Baseball and diminishes the stature and integrity of the game in a manner which, to the Orioles, is thoroughly unacceptable,” Angelos says. “We feel we have an obligation to refrain from participating in an activity which will justifiably visit public condemnation on our great game, to the irreparable damage of this franchise.”
Angelos has also taken the high ground in saying, presumably from the heart, that preserving Cal Ripken’s streak is another reason to shun replacement players. The season-ticket-holders’ poll supports that position as well—though just 30 percent said a labor-induced end to the streak would alienate them from the Orioles, a far cry from the 80 percent or better support on more general questions.
Assuming MLB resumes in our lifetimes, it will need the working class heroism of Ripken’s streak to help it recover its lost popularity. Ripken’s evocation of Lou Gehrig’s triumph in tragedy, his courage, and his humility tap into the game’s rich emotional tapestry, a national heirloom players and owners have willfully defiled with this current dispute. Given that background and the noneconomic nature of the issue, any settlement will almost certainly include a clause to void replacement game statistics, keeping the Ripken streak alive. The National Football League managed a similar statistical sleight-of-hand to keep alive the consecutive-game pass-catching streak of Art Monk (and of scab-cum-Congressman Steve Largent) after its replacement team debacle. Even Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the so-called brains of the hardliners, may realize Ripken’s pursuit of Gehrig is good business. It could help recoup some of the windfall lost when labor troubles cut short Reinsdorf’s wet dream of having Michael Jordan in the Sox lineup.
At heart, though, it’s not the Ripken issue or cool logic or even pure (vs. replacement) capitalism reinforcing Angelos’ opposition to replacement games. Any man who ups his auction bid for the team some $30 million in a day operates at a more visceral level.
Carrying on in the tradition of predecessor Edward Bennett Williams during the 1981 strike season, Angelos has completely and publicly disagreed with his fellow owners’ negotiating strategy, insisting that replacement players will not help end the strike. In a Los Angeles Times interview, Angelos characterized acting Commissioner Bud Selig’s efforts to settle the dispute as “[a]mateurish, ineffective and doomed to failure. Watching him is like watching a person put his hand in a buzz saw. You want to shout, “You’re splattering blood all over the rest of us!’ ”
To some extent, Angelos’ differences with Selig reflect the divide between high-income and low-income clubs that is at the heart of baseball’s difficulties. Like Selig, Angelos favors expanded revenue sharing—but with the twist that the money should go toward development projects, such as Camden Yards-style stadiums, to enhance teams’ long-term viability. Angelos also favors letting teams move, or even fold, if they can’t cut the mustard economically.
Angelos’ thinking on baseball’s labor pains has also been shaped by his labor law practice, from whence came the fortune that enabled him to buy the top toy in town. “Clearly his background has got to be a contributing factor in the strength of his convictions,” acknowledges Foss. Angelos would rather not offend his labor buddies by hiring replacements, known in the vernacular as scabs. Moreover, Angelos’ previous involvement in labor disputes as an attorney, rather than a business owner, helps him recognize that both sides in this dispute have legitimate concerns.
But there’s more at work than a simple difference of opinion. Williams believed he could settle the 1981 strike because he was a great lawyer. Angelos believes he has a role to play in the current imbroglio because he is a great labor lawyer. From the first time he sat down in an owner’s chair, Angelos believed he brought a unique perspective to the table. His fellow owners, as Angelos sees it, have gone out of their way to ignore his views in favor of their own agenda, which seemed ill-conceived to Angelos at first glance—and makes him look prophetic with each passing day. Refusing to field a replacement team guarantees that Angelos will not be ignored.
So we’ll get the N-O’s instead of the replacement O’s. In response, the American League has threatened to fine the Orioles up to $250,000 per game (on top of which the club could lose an estimated $40 million if the strike lasts through 1995), declare each scheduled Oriole game a forfeit, or even create their own replacement Oriole squad. The faux-O’s could play their games at a different site, or become a permanent road team à la the Ruppert Mundys of Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel.
It’s impossible to say how it will all shake out. Baseball hasn’t faced this sort of crisis since 1904, when another proud Oriole alumnus, John McGraw, refused to let his National League champion New York Giants meet the AL winners in the World Series, only the second ever played. That incident led the leagues to negotiate their final, lasting peace settlement.
This time, the dispute will undoubtedly wind up in the courts. The Orioles will claim that the American League constitution specifically exempts them from fielding a team in the event of a strike; the AL may argue that clause is intended to apply to stoppages by nonplaying personnel. The league may also contend that the Orioles’ refusal to field a team as ordered violates the requirement to act “in the best interests of baseball.”
Angelos can’t wait for the opportunity to take on league lawyers who will argue that continuing the labor impasse and putting replacement teams on the field is in the best interest of baseball. Then perhaps the AL will regret not having baseball’s best labor lawyer in its lineup.