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June 28, 2002

Analyze This

Starting Over

by Derek Zumsteg

I may be the only person in America cheering for a long, protracted labor battle that brings baseball to its knees. I think the best thing that could happen to baseball would be for it to face death, to look into the void and see the monster that the industry has become. There's no chance the owners are going to come to their senses and suddenly become honest, or open, or look towards meaningful long-term solutions that would benefit everyone.

Baseball is fat, hugely fat. Since the last strike, non-payroll expenses have risen at a higher rate than salaries have. Owners regularly extort stadiums out of their hosts. Many franchises are run by inept collections of morons who wouldn't be able to make a living standing on a street corner grinding an organ, with a uniformed monkey collecting change.

Baseball's response to this has been to set up illogical solutions that reward the idiots at the expense of the competent. There's no open discussion of creative solutions, and even discussing the facts blistering public attacks on your credibility-Forbes gets called a tabloid for arriving at its own conclusions about baseball's fiscal health-or, if you're lucky, a nasty phone call from Selig.

There is no justice in baseball. Justice is rules enforced fairly, without regard for affiliation or station in life. When the mayor's kid gets off for speeding and I don't, that's not justice. Selig threatens to fine dissenters a million bucks for talking, even among themselves, about the labor situation. Then he doesn't follow through when his political allies write op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal, or try to convince the players they're broke. That's cronyism of the worst sort.

Tear it down. If baseball owners are so determined to squander their position that they'll destroy their sport, who are we to stop them? Don't apply for presidential intervention, don't get Congress to revoke the antitrust exemption, don't do anything. If there's a long strike, and baseball franchises have to stare extinction in the face, we may finally see progress. Instead of back-asswards revenue-redistribution plans, maybe someone can actually take the time to look at Keith Woolner's ideas. Woolner's plan would share revenue while rewarding well-run franchises, rather than blindly taking money from model franchises like the Indians and giving it to teams like the Phillies that have alienated their huge local markets.

The NBA and the NFL have both stared death in the face, and they came out with plans for the industry that led to their revival and continued health. The NBA, for instance, made a conscious decision to do anything they needed to do to get their game on television, market their product, and recruit more fans to the sport. The NFL is constantly tinkering with their sport; for instance, trying to find out how to best work instant replay into the game to make sure fans have some confidence in the decisions while at the same time not getting in the way of the action.

I had a long conversation last week with a friend of mine who's a huge NFL fan, and who disagrees with me about nearly everything: the salary cap, competitive balance, you name it. The thing that struck me most was that he had faith in his game. When we talked about the pass-interference play (star receiver runs up the sideline, gets into a bump-and-tangle with the opposing back, quarterback tosses the ball in the general area, star receiver signals for pass interference call, ref calls pass interference), he shrugged and said "they'll figure it out," and went on to talk about how every year, he and every other NFL fan bites on the new season's optimism, no matter how many times in a row they've been burned. The teams promote their strengths, the new players, the improvements they've made, and the season tickets sell.

We've talked a lot about Selig's anti-marketing tour, where he rolls into, say, Minnesota and slags the local product until there's no rational reason a fan would buy a ticket, then moves on to the next town. More than anything, this is the fundamental difference between he sports that have been forced to consider their survival, and baseball. Baseball owners look at player salaries and think "boy, if we could cap those, we could make an extra $100 million every year," while never considering if that's even a real solution, or if there's a way to control costs without trying to break the union. In other leagues, the way to that extra $100 million is through more lucrative media contracts, and better marketing to get fans in seats.

If Major League Baseball is destroyed, going down in a flaming wreck of accusations, what happens? Baseball will survive. Donald Fehr is not going to go down the street and tear up the baseball diamond. Alex Rodriguez isn't going to run off with your ball if you try and start a softball game. People love baseball, and will continue to play and watch it.

In Minnesota, 22,000 people defy Selig and put the lie to the manufactured need for new stadiums every time they see a game in the Metrodome. In Montreal, where the team is doomed after years of being mismanaged, trashed, ravaged by economic collapse and sea changes in the area's population, eight thousand people go to every game. That'd be a decent figure for a Triple-A franchise; managed better, maybe it can be built back to a viable major-league level. I wrote about Les Expos before, and their fans wrote me page after page of e-mail: there are those who believe baseball can't work, and those who believe that it can, but they all care, and they all have ideas. I'd love to see what those fans could do, given the opportunity.

I'd love to see competing leagues spring up, where the different schools of economic thought can compete. Still, I'm all for better regional baseball. Regional leagues with their regional cable channels. Arguments over whether the Eastern League or the Pacific Coast League is better. Small baseball in the intimate sense of attachment to the team that plays ten minutes from your home. A return to the neighborhood ballparks of Fenway, where baseball stadiums are part of the economy and people's lives, rather than the humungous and sterile Miller Parks surrounded by vast moats of parking lots.

The teams on the West Coast, like the Giants, who have a huge incentive to keep playing, might try and form a splinter faction immediately, along with the healthy western franchises (Mariners/Angels/Dodgers/A's/Padres). Try and get the southwest and the Texas teams to join, and you've almost got a ten-team league right there, all franchises that are viable now in the anti-marketing world. Then maybe Sacramento and Portland buy out and play their Triple-A teams. I'd go see those games. Eventually, the Yankees intra-squad team will get bored playing itself five days a week on the YES Network and go looking for opponents.

That's all random speculation, though. I don't know what a post-baseball world looks like. But there is no way that baseball, as it rose again, could be in the hands of people less dedicated to the health of the sport, or more blind to the harm they do with their own blind greed and single-minded desire to win revenge on the players for the sake of a few dollars. If it takes the rest of my life before we have the highest level of play in a healthy and well-run national league, so be it: when I pass my love for the sport on to my kids, I'll at least know they won't have to through this endless angst we've had, year after year.

In the meantime, I've watched more minor-league games than I can count. The beer is cheap, the parks--old and new--are comfortable and open-roof, the fans are the same baseball people, and the front offices are friendlier. I'll watch baseball without the MLB logo on it. It won't be so bad. And unless someone puts the steel chair to Selig as he walks out to the negotiating table, we should think about laying in supplies.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

 

Related Content:  Bug Selig,  Strike

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