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Now time to speak to the fans

Special to

Aug. 31

A Lehman Brothers analyst suggests baseball has been sailing toward The Perfect Storm because of a confluence of forces including skyrocketing debt, rising player costs, the slumping economy and declining interest in the sport itself. So on August 30, playing the role of captain Billy Tyne (far better than George Clooney), Bud Selig decided to leave the last run of swordfish behind and try to avoid the storm.

Selig stepped forward Friday and called the labor agreement "historic," even throwing out a couple of Beatles references that recalled American Bandstand rather than MTV. It is important that no games were missed, and while "historic" is a tad self-serving, getting the labor agreement completed did avoid what could have been the ultimate wave.

So, they avoided the wreck. But what condition is the boat in?

In 1985, two days of games were missed. But the greater attention and the campaigns that led up to the Friday agreement was, in fact, every bit as damaging as missing two days. For all intents and purposes, there was a labor stoppage because a sizeable chunk of the baseball entertainment audience stopped caring because of the drone of labor talk that, since the commissioner is into the Beatles, sounded like months of playing "Revolution No. 9" ... backwards.

That they avoided a strike is important, although getting a deal done last summer -- as Paul Beeston tried to do -- and avoiding the tawdry contraction press conference two days after something really historic (a classic World Series) and the bitter winter of hardline rhetoric from the privileged classes would have been far, far more important. In a season in which Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds, the A's, Braves, Twins, Pedro Martinez Alfonso Soriano, Sammy Sosa, and so many others have given fans so much ... only to be drowned out by the sorrow of the labor dispute.

What was striking about the press conference is that Selig barely mentioned the fans and their stake in the game. Many could interpret this as Selig essentially saying, "We've been telling you the players are greedy, mercenary and overrated for two years, and now we're putting millions more into the pockets of certain billionaires without asking them to invest in the game, but owners and players alike expect you to come back, bring your family of four to our games and spend the expected $150. I am the owners' commissioner and you're lucky."

There has been a lot that the Selig administration has accomplished, from the wild card to the forms of revenue sharing. But Cal Ripken, Joe Torre, Mark McGwire and Sosa had a lot to do with making all that successful, and as the sport has eroded in the last four years, the fundamental failure of post-Fay Vincent leadership has been that it was always about beating Donald Fehr. They couldn't do it with collusion, they couldn't do it in 1994, and that is what became the principle goal of the people who run baseball, egged on by a chorus of Jesse Helms wannabes who hate baseball and were willing to strip mine it just to be able to sell for a higher price.

There isn't anyone -- OK, outside of George Steinbrenner -- who doesn't hope this agreement actually is historic, and that the billion dollars that are transferred from the large and well-run franchises to the small and poorly run franchises actually gives folks in what used to be great baseball towns like Pittsburgh and Kansas City hope. If the A's can now sign Miguel Tejada away from free agency at the end of next season, if the Marlins and Twins can keep most of their arbitration-eligible players, if the Royals sign Paul Byrd and invest, if the Blue Jays can sign a couple of $3 million starting pitchers, if the Reds can sign one or two pitchers, if the Indians can match Jim Thome's market value ... fine. Great. Baseball will be better, and even though the union has always cared far more for the $15 million players than the $700,000 rank and file, if all those teams spend on players and development and level the cost of going to games, everyone will be better off.

However, if you're Steinbrenner, you look at this as welfare, not competitive balance. There are no guarantees that the "small markets" (Philadelphia, for instance) will re-invest the money. If competitive balance really were the issue, then why wasn't the amateur draft addressed? The best way for weak teams to rebuild with a solid foundation is for the draft to provide the bad teams the best players; there is no better example of this than Oakland, but any discussion of Oakland vs. Detroit and others is a digression on front-office competency, and wealth doesn't guarantee intelligence. The draft bonuses flattened this year only because agents were afraid that there would be a radical change in the system -- one the major-league players wanted -- but now that it wasn't addressed, the poorer teams will have to draft players based on signability, not skill, and Scott Boras was right. Again.

Hopefully there will be watchdog groups among the big-market teams, media and the Players Association to monitor how some of the Wal-Mart small-market types use their money. If Selig won't punish someone for pocketing someone else's money, then the court of public opinion should.

Hopefully, they can figure out what to do with Montreal, Florida and other franchises for whom the hope of historic agreements may be useless. Most studies of the industry indicate the sport must gravitate to the big markets, which would include a team in New Jersey and one in Washington, D.C.

Hopefully, the owners will find conscience. In all this revenue-sharing, there should be incentives for owners to build ballparks with as little public funding as possible. There should be rewards for Peter Magowan for not only saving a great franchise, but for building a ballpark with his own money, just as there should be revenue-sharing penalties for owners who get their ballparks from taxpayers. If this were about people and fans and not just about owners, then the commissioner would take the lead in this field, because there is no moral way that the San Francisco Giants should have to transfer money to teams like the Brewers and White Sox who were given taxpayer dollars to finance their ballparks and teams.

Part of baseball's erosion has been caused by its lack of public trust, and some sort of inclusion in revenue-sharing that includes an owner's contribution to his community -- in Magowan's case, monumental, but in the case of the John Henry/Tom Werner Group in Boston, subtle but indefatigable -- would be a start.

But the most important goal for Selig and Fehr in the next three months is to break down the Berlin Wall between them and form a partnership. The campaign waged against the players these last two years has sadly diminished them in the public eye. And not only are the current players better skilled than those in my rookie writer season of 1972, they are better people. Fans come to games to see their teams and because they love the game, but most of all, to see the players play.

This deal was done and Bud Selig could claim his "victory" because it was the players who didn't want to strike, understood the voices in the crowds and love the game. Selig ignored fans at his press conference; B.J. Surhoff said, "Players are fans, too." Tom Glavine told friends that in the end, he wants his legacy to have the game healthy, and Todd Zeile said, "This group of players wants its legacy to be the growth, health and development of the game."

Take Charles Steinberg out of the Red Sox front office and let him begin the process of interacting players like Bernie Williams, Javier Vazquez, Darin Erstad, Carlos Pena, Pedro Martinez, Mark Grace, Miguel Batista, Lance Berkman and hundreds of other terrific people in the game with their public. In the last decade, owners have been so absorbed with beating back the union that they have lost touch with the players and, more important, the public. When ESPN approached MLB about televising games from 1 p.m. until 1 a.m. on September 11 to celebrate baseball's dedication to the healing process, the network was told that it would have to be put out for bid and that it was all about money. Not conscience ... money.

The players, too, have to share in the responsibility, but if the Commissioner's Office will respect them better than Wal-Mart respects a checkout clerk, they will learn that there are hundreds of Glavines, Zeiles, Bernies and Al Leiters who will work with them to restore baseball to the position it once held.

To those of us who love the game and hold deep respect for the skill and character of those who play it, the restoration is the single most important urgent task facing the people who claim the sport's power and authority, and it is far more complex and deep-rooted than a couple of quickie promos. Selig won his campaign against the players, at a cost, and what he needs to remember is that leaders who worry about their own perception rather than their actions are not leaders at all, just followers.

On Wednesday night, Pedro Martinez was facing the Yankees at Fenway, a pleasant, 70ish night. As the game began, out on Yawkey Way tickets were being given away, because the scalpers got no action and were giving them away to the best-looking women they could find.

Pedro vs. Mussina, Red Sox vs. Yankees, Fenway, 300,000 college students back in town ... and they were giving away tickets. That is a cloud that signifies a storm that a cash agreement between billionaires and millionaires won't divert.

It will only be diverted when Selig and the owners realize that what is important is (1) the public -- the fans -- and their relationship with the players and 2) the owners' and players' responsibility to their fans and their communities. If our lives were on videotape, Selig could go back and re-open that press conference. In the absence of videotape, he can begin tomorrow refocusing baseball away from the lunatic fringe owners and to its audience.

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