July 18, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
Show of hands, please...is it OK if I make every other column a mailbag?
Lost in the chaos that surrounded the All-Star Game--and the spate of anti-marketing that followed it--was that the players did not set a strike date. They met, they authorized team votes on whether to walk, but no date was set, and none has yet been set.
It's pretty clear that the players do not want any part of a walkout. Not that they ever have, but there's definitely a greater understanding of what could happen if they do go on strike. The lesson of 1994 is that yes, the World Series can be cancelled, and this whole thing can end up in a nuclear winter.
The players appear to be holding off as long as possible before putting a date on the table, which tells me that the experience of 1994 has also taught them that going on strike isn't going to necessarily make the owners more reasonable. Remember, the early-August walkout of 1994 was intended to leave sufficient time for a settlement and a normal, if asterisked, postseason. Now that the players know that a walkout could end the year, they're looking at later dates, mid-September ones designed to allow them to get as much of their salary as they can before endangering the owners' cash cow, October baseball. (I believe that they also wish to avoid the public-relations problem of being on strike on September 11.)
But back to the point: the players don't want to strike. They know that they'll take a huge beating from the fans and the press. The latter is a bit more economically literate than it was in 1994, but the fans, in general, don't understand or want to understand the issues. The players don't enjoy becoming the butt of unfunny jokes for sports columnists and talk-show hosts around the country, nor will they enjoy the treatment they get from the fans in the time leading up to, and after, a strike. That the players have the only offer on the table that actually addresses revenue gaps between the top and bottom teams in the game is lost on these groups.
The players are considering striking for one reason, and one reason only: it's their only option. A strike between now and September 29 is their only chance to put pressure on ownership to take a reasonable position in negotiations. If they play the season and the postseason without an agreement, they're handing a man they have no reason to trust all the leverage.
Don't let Bob DuPuy's recent dismissal of the notion of implementation by fool you. The owners know that if the postseason is played, they inherit a very large hammer. They would have a full kitty from postseason TV and stadium money, the ability to declare an impasse and implement their last offer (a rule that, as it did in 1994, encourages the owners to be intransigent in the talks), then lock the players out when they have the least leverage--March, after a winter free from paychecks.
The only reason the players are considering a labor stoppage is as a first strike against ownership doing so. They would just as soon keep playing baseball and negotiating a CBA through the winter and spring. They know that the owners have no intention of doing that, however, and have, as they did in 1994, orchestrated an entire scenario that leads to implementation.
There's a solution, one so obvious that it has no hope of happening, but I'm going to make a public plea for it. If the completion of the season is so important to Selig--something he claimed was the case when he made the meaningless "no in-season lockout" pledge--then the owners should promise that they will neither implement a new system nor lock out the players in spring training, removing the need for the players to go out on strike.
When this option has been mentioned to him, Selig has dismissed it in two ways. One, he's ignored the question, insisting that a deal has to get done "at the table." That's a load, because when a deal didn't get done at the table in 1994, the owners implemented. Two, he's made one of his many claims that a continuation of the current system would cause teams to declare bankruptcy, to go under. Which is the lie he told to Congress in 1995. And more or less what Bowie Kuhn said in 1980. And what Albert Spalding said during the Harrison Administration.
It's a hoax, and if it's not, well, go ahead and prove it. Believe me, the last thing MLB wants is a bankruptcy court asking questions about MLB finances. There are no Rep. Sensenbrenners to save Selig there, just serious men asking serious questions about unserious numbers.
I know this is just a time-buying tactic, that another year of negotiations could lead right back to where we are right now. But an extra year has to look real good to everyone involved, given the cliff that we're rapidly approaching. The players don't want to strike, and somewhere inside, Selig has to know that canceling a second World Series cements his legacy as the worst leader of anything in the history of mankind.
Do I think this will happen? No, because it would force Selig to admit that he isn't being honest about all these teams on the brink of ruin, and it doesn't fit his real strategy, which is to break the union and implement a system that restricts labor costs, other effects be damned. It's not about completing a season or reaching an agreement, it's about making the players look bad for doing the only thing they can do. It's about using unfair labor practices again, but this time hoping a friendlier National Labor Relations Board will see it their way.
Make it stop, Bud. "We won't implement if you don't walk. Let's give ourselves more time on this one." I'm not asking him to change his negotiating position one iota; I'm just asking him to let both sides put the hammers away for a little while.