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March 22, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

The Gag Order

by Keith Law

Czar Bud has issued a gag order on his fellow owners, and despite Selig's relative lack of power, the owners have so far decided to abide by the edict and clam up. The taboo subject? The impending labor talks and possible work stoppage that currently loom over the 2002 season.

Many fans are no doubt pleased by the lack of acrimony in the press so far. All fans should be pleased that some of the attention that would ordinarily be focused on the expiration of the CBA and the morass that inevitably accompanies such an event will instead be focused on the field. With less controversy to cover in the board rooms, many reporters will default to talking about the events on the field, and fans will not have to endure so many sports commentators offering their witless commentaries on business and economics. Sportswriters writing about economics issues is about as sensible as Hollywood actors talking about politics, and the results are equally vapid. When you see me writing about biotechnology, you know it's time to leave.

However, there is one small negative side effect to the vow of silence. While public relations is generally seen as a form of marketing, it also provides companies and entities with a way to test ideas before they're launched; that is, without actually making a full investment in the ideas. Sometimes it's a new product. Sometimes it's a branding strategy. Sometimes it's a possible trade, floated to a widely read source like Peter Gammons. And sometimes it's a negotiating ploy.

In an industry like baseball, the general attitude of the fans is critical to the teams' future revenue streams. When fans see that the local team isn't going to win under any circumstances, they stop going to the games and watching them on TV. Local corporations stop fighting over club seats and luxury boxes.

More critically, if either side in the baseball battle determines early on that its strategy will result in a severe drop in fan support, that side will likely pull back and either revise its strategy or increase its willingness to compromise at the negotiating table. This element to the negotiation is lost when both sides claim they want to have an amicable discussion out of the public eye. (You can, of course, exchange pleasantries with someone you're about to take to the cleaners.)

The owners, in particular, need to know when somebody set up them the bomb, because their unwillingness to accept that their problems are largely of their own making probably means that they're going to try to unnecessarily stick it to the players. Again.

--

Chris Kahrl's Transaction Analysis talked a bit about the insane contracts handed out recently to several starting and backup catchers. Allow me to contribute my two cents by pointing out that Tom Wilson, Creighton Gubanich, and Danny Ardoin--among others--are all sitting around Triple-A, waiting for a chance to earn just $200,000 and play on a major-league team, while the Angels are coughing up ridiculous sums to overpay the overachieving Ben Molina. This drives up the cost for other teams to retain catchers as they reach their arbitration years.

Some teams simply don't learn. Arbitration makes the smart teams pay for that ineptitude.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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