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Players, owners just don't get it

Special to

Aug. 17

What these billionaires and millionaires and all their high-priced lawyers had better understand is that they don't matter. All those people who lost their jobs and their savings at Enron matter. The police and firemen who can't get raises in New York City, with all its Wall Street green, matter. All those folks whose family stores were systematically run out of business by the Wal-Marts of the world matter. Or teachers, always the bottom of the priority ring, all the way up to those in the academic world who devote their lives to dealing with childhood diseases or osteoporosis and get paid about a fifth of what a rookie backup catcher makes. They matter.

This is an industry that needs to seriously re-evaluate itself, its leadership, its business practices, its understanding of the product and its customer. But it's pretty hard for anyone to take it seriously, not when billionaires and millionaires sound like the Kennedy kids fighting over who gets the bigger dish of ice cream.

Millions of people matter, including hot-dog vendors and clubhouse kids and grounds-crew workers. But baseball owners and players don't.

Now, they may not get it, but because of them their game matters less than it has in a long time. Richard Sandomir's piece in the New York Times last month detailed the erosion of interest in the sport since the Summer of Mark and Sammy. But it is clear that the people who run the game -- owners and players and lawyers -- are oblivious to long-term reality, any more so than they cared about the national embarrassment of trashing the Labor Secretary and one of the greatest mediators in American history in 1994.

Maybe they don't care if they shut their game down on Aug. 30 and spit in the face of all that Sept. 11 means to our national consciousness. Maybe they don't care that they will reduce baseball to pro soccer, because the '95 comeback isn't happening again: the entertainment attention span is far different, football has lapped baseball in interest (hmmm ... maybe competition has something to do with that? ...), Ripken and Mark and Sammy ain't coming back through the door and, oh yes, these are completely different economic times.

To folks who do matter, these rich people pretending to recreate the Centralia, Illinois mining disaster of 1947 is hysterically funny. Although not as funny as it is to the NFL, which will soon be to baseball what the Yankees are to the Souix Falls Canaries. And one of the funniest aspects is that what they don't understand is that their constant bickering over how to split billions is more associated with the sport than the excellence of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra.

Is there a long-term problem with competitive balance? Absolutely, when teams in the lower half of revenues have won five postseason games in five years. Should the players tell the owners how to share their revenues? How presumptuous, considering that labor lawyers have no experience running anything but briefs. Will the theory of bringing the bottom and the top closer together work? No one knows for sure, but it's worth trying as long as there is a floating threshold based on revenues and the teams taxed are limited to something in the four-to-seven range.

What makes this all so preposterous is that this has nothing to do with the majority on either side. Three-quarters of the players would rather play than strike to preserve the Yankees' payroll, which is what the lawyers fight for in the spirit of trickle-up Reagonomics (as this is the ultimate Reagan "union"); they'd sign a deal with a 35 percent luxury tax on a threshold that impacted seven teams in a heartbeat, and if you don't believe it, then ask yourself why the players are not allowed a private vote?

When four-fifths of the major-league players want to cap draft bonuses and allow a worldwide draft, it goes out the window because of lawyerese? More than half the owners would like a moderate deal and get to the business of promoting the product rather than devaluing it, which is what both the owners and union lawyers do when they drag the product onto the public stage and announce that millionaires have to strike.

Really, now. In a billion-dollar industry, they can't figure out how to split the difference between a threshold of $102 million and $130 million? The players can't live with the same 35 percent luxury tax they agreed to in the last deal, a tax that, incidentally, slowed down nothing? Do they think that if the Dodgers sign Scott Rolen for $11 million and go $6 million over the threshold that they'd back off the deal because it would cost them another $2 million? Come on, come on: the Dodgers paid $3.5 million just to ask Tom Goodwin to leave, and the Red Sox paid $18 million to not have to look at Darren Oliver, Rich Garces and Jose Offerman anymore.

This is so miniscule, so petty that what each side is mud-wrestling over seems like fool's gold. What they ought to be doing is coming up with creative ways to market and grow baseball, something they have never done, both because of a lack of leadership and creativity among owners (Dear Bob Daly: having run a major movie studio, do these people promote this entertainment like Anna Nicole Smith, or what?) and the lack of responsibility accepted by the union. Look, we all know the Phillies have a bad park deal, but the fact remains that in the sixth biggest market in the United States their payroll is $20 million less than the Cardinals', and they get $11 million in revenue sharing money while the Cards pay; there are 6.2 million people living in the Philadelphia area while St. Louis has only 2.6 million people, but the Phillies get $7 million more in local radio and TV revenues.

If they do shut baseball down days before the first anniversary of 9/11, fine. We know that if that happens, the moderate owners likely will galvanize, even though those who cannot afford a strike -- such as the Giants, Red Sox and Mets -- will suffer a great deal. And bankers howl. Some owners in hard-pressed cities -- Detroit, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, for instance -- could well try to go the bankruptcy route, and as the airlines try to free themselves from bad lease and union deals, so also might clubs try to go to court to free themselves of commitments to Bobby Higginson, Jason Kendall and Greg Vaughn.

Commissioner Bud Selig should have gotten this deal done without all this. He should also have set up a management office to teach some of these teams how to run their baseball businesses, because while the playing field is unlevel and there are gross inequities inherent to the current system, the fact is that the Brewers, Tigers, Royals, Devil Rays and other teams are what they are for a reason -- bad management. The A's, Reds, Astros and Giants compete every year because of good management. The Red Sox are paying $110 million for a $70 million team because of previous bad management.

While the Yankees just throw anything they want around, be it a two-year, $12 million deal for Sterling Hitchcock or buying Raul Mondesi from the Blue Jays, the rest of the industry is experiencing a market correction that will continue through this winter. Where in 1998 a Jim Thome could command a Carlos Delgado-like $17.6 million a year deal, this winter he'll be fortunate to top $12 million -- and he comes with stats and character. Jeff Kent is one of the best players at his position ever, but is he going to skyrocket past his $6 million level at the age of 34?

Teams should have figured out that it doesn't do any good to assemble a team to win in January just to please talk shows. And there are certain truths that are clearly evident:

  • Any long-term deal to a player over 30 is an immense risk, especially with insurance as costly as it is today.

  • Utility infielders, sub-.700 OPS infielders, middle relievers, No. 4 and 5 starters and non-power producers at the corners are fungible and should be tossed into a pool every winter and fished out at between $600,000 and $1.5 million.

  • Closers are a lot less of a premium than it sometimes seems. "Everyone has a closer," says one wise GM, "it just takes some time to figure out who he is."

  • Contraction is a good idea, and the union leaders always believed it. They need time to prepare for it, but in 2004 or 2005 Montreal and one of the Florida teams should go, and then realign to get Pittsburgh into the East and Colorado into the Central.

  • Major League Baseball should help fund wooden bats in the college game, promote the notion that unless an 18-year-old has either Alex Rodriguez talent or no academic future that the place to develop between the ages of 18 and 20 is in college and during the summer in the Cape Cod or Valley leagues. Allow them to develop normally. And one of the most idiotic wastes of money is a $3 million contract to an 18-year-old who must develop socially on 16-hour bus rides while eating McDonald's junk food.

    This is an industry that needs to seriously re-evaluate itself, its leadership, its business practices, its understanding of the product and its customer. But it's pretty hard for anyone to take it seriously, not when billionaires and millionaires sound like the Kennedy kids fighting over who gets the bigger dish of ice cream.

    To all those who do matter at this point in history, those who control baseball do not.

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  • Gammons: Diamond Notes

    Countdown begins: Strike date set for Aug. 30

    Stark: Answers to current labor issues

    Campbell: Fans won't tolerate another strike

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