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July 16, 2002



Will baseball strike out again?
By Dan Patrick

Once again the baseball labor situation is in limbo. After the dire -- and apparently erroneous -- report from commissioner Bud Selig that two teams might miss payroll, we are now back to guessing if and when the players will walk off the job.

Optimists will say that the game's guardians must have learned something from 1994 and that both the players and owners do not want to be on strike before, during or after Sept. 11. Pessimists will just shrug and say, "It's baseball. Of course they'll screw it up."

(Former Mariners owner Jeff) Smulyan referred to the majority of owners as "rich and dumb." That's comforting.

I recently talked to two people who have been close to the game, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn and former Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan. Quite simply, Kuhn said, baseball is in a sad state. But he also thinks both sides know that a work stoppage is wrong, although one must assume they knew it was wrong the eight other times since 1972 that labor strife grounded the sport to a halt. He thinks we will be talking about the World Series in October. He's the optimist.

Kuhn said the game faced the same problems when he was commissioner. But they were less pronounced. Local cable TV deals were not as prominent back then. He pointed out that much of the value in the recent Red Sox sale was in the team's 80-percent stake in the New England Sports Network. Many of the smaller-market teams do not have such a powerful revenue source -- and they never will.

What about convening the former commissioners along with Selig and having them form a grand plan, based on their different approaches to the problem? Kuhn said he understood the idea, but he reminded me of the friction between Selig and former commissioner Fay Vincent -- and between the commissioners and the officials of the players' union.

Kuhn believes there must be financial parity among the teams, as there is in the NFL. He's right in saying the major-league teams must realize they are a collective product, not 30 competing businesses. But the NFL has other things, like flexible schedules, that make for a more competitive league.

If the San Diego Chargers go 7-9 and are on the verge of the NFL playoffs one year, the next year they will have a relatively easy schedule that might allow for some continued improvement. Meanwhile, in baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will play the same schedule forever.

It's complicated. If the Yankees played the upper-echelon teams all season and did not have 19 games against the Devil Rays, what would happen then? You might see some more competitive balance. You would also see the high-salaried teams playing each other in the regular season more often.

While Kuhn is the optimist, Smulyan is the pessimist. He thinks there will be a strike. He also doesn't think much of his former colleagues. Jeff Loria and John Henry sold teams and got back into baseball ownership. Smulyan is in the radio business now and doesn't seem eager to own another team.

He saw the current labor mess coming and knew he could not financially compete with the big-revenue teams. So he got out. And the current Mariners owners have lost hundreds of millions of dollars to field the team they now have.

Smulyan referred to the majority of owners as "rich and dumb." That's comforting.

Both Kuhn and Smulyan agree that baseball's current system cannot continue if the sport is to survive. The Royals and Pirates are simply not playing the same game as the Yankees and Dodgers. But do you have to blow the game up again to fix it?

We'll know soon.

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Former commissioner Bowie Kuhn reviews the current blueprint of Major League Baseball.
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