Baseball May Have Profited From Short Strike : With Troubles Solved for Now, Game Can Go On to Glory Days, Record Feats

August 25, 1985|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

Major league baseball survived, and perhaps even prospered from, one of the most potentially damaging crises in its history.

When baseball returned from its two-day thunderstorm strike, a third of a million people came to 13 ballparks. The next night, more than 300,000 fans laid their money down.

That's more than 25,000 per game--higher even than the pre-strike attendance average, which was ahead of baseball's all-time record pace.

Call it a huge collective sigh of relief. Not merely that the game had avoided a long strike, like the 50-day disaster in 1981, but that the backbone of several destructive baseball trends had, perhaps, been broken at last.

Players and owners finally could forget the nightmare of perhaps $200 million in lost pay and revenues. Fans finally could let out their breath. Their game, a sport almost drunk with the disorienting wine of change in recent years, might finally be able to walk right again.

Throughout the 1980s, the sport's public undoubtedly has felt profoundly ambivalent about baseball. Fans have loved almost everything on the field and loathed nearly all of the developments off it.

Never has the sport's grip on the public mind been stronger. Or more precarious. As attendance and revenue records were shattered, so were any illusions about the sport's claim to moral high ground. Glamour and greed, artistry and addiction, the best and the worst in ourselves, all seemed to stare at us out of the baseball mirror.

After a hard day of reality, who wanted to go to the park and be force-fed the same diet? Even if we were never naive enough to think ballplayers were better than the rest of us, we at least wanted to concentrate, while the game lasted, on a man's virtues more than his vulgarities.

That vital balance has been endangered of late. Which of us, in our own mind, has not felt the strain between attraction and repulsion?

If 1985 had been remembered as the season when baseball lost a World Series because of a strike, could we have found a darker moment since the Black Sox scandal of 1919?

If the Pittsburgh drug probe, plus the antics of rich drug addicts and spoiled prima donnas, had been our lasting memory of this season, who's to say that Americans might not have spent the winter going through some subliminal souring on the game.

If new Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had fallen on his face last week, if his leadership had ended up looking like a bluff, if his idealistic talk had left only the taste of self-serving PR, what authority would he have had left for the remainder of his five-year term?

The long knives stuck in Bowie Kuhn might have come out again. If Ueberroth had failed badly, then quit or been deposed in the aftermath, who in the world could baseball have sweet-talked into accepting such a disastrous job?

Even the old "national pasttime," with its long history of dumb luck, has no assurance of happy endings. What if baseball had suffered even a one-month strike, then returned to find that the public had forgotten about pennant-race foolishness in favor of football? How much red ink would baseball have wept then? Would endangered teams in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the San Francisco Bay area have survived?

Suppose even a milder scenario: a strike had ended with owners getting no concessions from the union. Could we have viewed baseball's future with the optimism that even now begins to trickle back into the game?

After an undefeated decade, the union finally picked the perfect time to accept a tie. The owners' negotiator, Lee MacPhail, who may be a bit naive in accepting his millionaire employers' evaluation of their fiscal plight, has spent recent days apologizing for not getting more.

He got plenty.

The brakes haven't been slammed onto the game's runaway salaries, but they've been pumped a couple of times.

Changing arbitration eligibility from two to three years will have both a tangible and a ripple effect on pay.

Perhaps just as important is the clause in the new basic agreement that instructs future arbitrators to compare a player's wage demands to the pay of men with comparable years of experience as well as similar statistics. That's going to slash hundreds of thousands of dollars off both contract demands and awards. What Mike Schmidt makes, after a decade as a star, won't bear as heavily on what an arbitrator gives a 23-year-old phenom.

If owners can now get their heads together on some rudimentary revenue sharing, the game's financial health should be excellent by the next labor negotiations in 1990.

Now that the game's books are ajar (they're hardly "open"), it's apparent that baseball's half-dozen most wealthy teams need to send a couple of million bucks a year in the direction of the half-dozen poorest.

One of the charming legacies of this year's labor battle has been "The Noll Report"--a study done for the union by Stanford economics professor Roger Noll on the owners claims of impending financial disaster.

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