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The Life

August 30, 2002
Strike out
ESPN The Magazine

If we've learned anything over the last week, as baseball's strike countdown gradually claimed its own little corner of our television screens, it's this: There is perhaps no issue galvanizing our nation quite like the distasteful notion of young, able-bodied men making millions of dollars playing baseball.

We have no problem, however, with old-guard patricians making millions of dollars owning baseball teams, maybe because we accept their status as the ultimate owners of everything, with baseball merely a logical extension. But these young guys -- the ones fans pay to watch -- they're a different story. They're ingrates, after all, because every guy driving a truck or stocking the shelves would play ball for nothing. Nothing, I tell ya.

Fans strike back
Fans have no problem letting players know who they blame.

The 11th-hour settlement allowed the owners the right to claim victory, but they had already won long before the pasty-faced kingpins took turns adoring themselves in the congratulatory press conference. The owners commandeered the PR battle and made it their own. Roughly three-quarters of the interested public -- granted, a dwindling number -- sided with the owners in this dispute, and the anecdotal evidence was even stronger than the statistical.

On Thursday night they threw baseballs and money onto the field in Anaheim, in Orange County, where free-market capitalism turned orange groves into glistening high-rise, high-rent office space. It was ugly and distasteful, but hey -- they paid their money, right? They can express themselves as they see fit.

Besides, the players are public and accessible, so they take the brunt of the fans' anger. In the interest of balance, though -- competitive balance, even -- why not direct some of that anger toward the owners' boxes?

Lost in the argument throughout the ordeal were many salient facts. The perception was that players making an average of $2.3 million weren't satisfied and wanted more. The reality was that, all along, the players expressed a willingness to concede on most issues -- a fact exhibited in the final agreement. The perception was that baseball was dying, that the money supply was dwindling. That's what the owners want you to believe, even though baseball revenue has doubled in the past six years, to $3.6 billion.

The direction of public opinion is mystifying, really. Everyone seems to understand and accept Bud Selig's epic incompetence and seemingly bottomless capacity for -- to be highly generous -- twisting the truth. Just to pick something at random, Selig can't even embrace the game's best stories -- the allegedly impossible small-payroll successes in Minnesota and Oakland. Those two franchises are models, and Bud calls them aberrations. They should be honored, instead they are belittled. Has there ever been a worse spokesman for the game than Selig?

Doesn't matter. You say it was the players' fault, so it was the players' fault. Since everyone seems fixated on Alex Rodriguez's oft-cited $252 million contract, let's shift the argument from Rodriguez to Rangers owner Tom Hicks. This utter incompetent gave A-Rod nearly $100 million more than the next offer, and then he stood around begging for money and bemoaning the system. He deserves some of George Steinbrenner's money? Why, exactly? So his next ridiculous move doesn't hurt as much? These are the same scions and heirs ("Lucky Sperm Club") whose blue blood curdles every time they're asked to pay sales tax on a yacht, and yet they're lining up to push a luxury tax, which is nothing more than a subsidy for the incompetent.

The luxury tax revenues won't have to be reinvested in the teams. If you honestly believe the money gained from such a tax will translate into better decisions and higher payrolls for poorly run clubs such as the Royals, Phillies and White Sox, you haven't been paying attention.

Oh, and calling it a "competitive balance tax"? Please. Don't insult us any more than you already have. We can't take much more. Until you open the books and prove the losses, some of us will remain skeptical. Do you think for a second that ticket prices will fall if the $3.6 billion is distributed more evenly? Do you think that $6.50 beer would suddenly cost $1.50? Our economics textbooks and our common sense indicate otherwise.

So it's done. Great news. No games were canceled. The damage was minimized, and after today that's all that really matters. Maybe the two sides will work together to market the sport properly and bring its image more in line with reality. But until then, go ahead and cheer the owners for holding firm and boo the players for their salaries and their hubris, but try to keep one thing in mind: At least the players are good at what they do.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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