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Commentary : Peter's Principle: Money Talks

January 03, 1989|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

For Christmas, baseball fans get a little gift in their sanitary hose from Peter Ueberroth.

The 1990 season.

He saved it. With his hardball network TV deal with CBS. And with the cable TV deal that he'll work out soon. As recently as a month ago, the '90 season looked as if it might be ruined, like '81, or maybe even extinguished, by the worst labor war ever in sports. Players were demanding strike clauses in contracts while owners negotiated the opposite-lock-out clauses. Stars were deferring money to other seasons or else lining up contracts to play in Japan.

Now, there's no reason on earth why players will be foolish enough to go on strike or the owners will be villanous enough to lock them out.

You see, the game's owners get something in their stockings from the commissioner, too. A billion bucks from CBS. Plus a half-billion or more from cable TV. Not to mention superstation TV revenues. More cash than even they can figure out how to squander. At least for a few years anyway.

As for the players, they get their wish, too. A bright, shiny free market -- like the one they had for a decade. Unfettered capitalism reappeared at the winter meetings in Atlanta with crazy bidding, and it's not going away. Ueberroth was a key player in taking that open market away from players for a couple of collusive years. He convinced owners they were about to lose money if they didn't wise up and act like sensible monopolists. Now, he's helped give a square deal back to the players by making the owners so rich, once more, that they can't wait to compete.

Naturally, those with a vested interest in the strategy of long-term labor negotiations -- Don Fehr of the union and Barry Rona of management -- still think a crisis exists. According to sources, both assume there'll be a spring training lock out in '90 by owners as a test of union solidarity.

However, those with millions to lose aren't going to shoot themselves in the foot just for the experience. Every owner will have at least $5 million a year more in his budget thanks to the TV deals. And Lloyd's of London isn't going to give the bosses 60 days of strike insurance this time. Conversely, hundreds of mediocre players like Tom Neidenfuer and Jeff Leonard, who just got two-year contracts for $1.75-million from the poorest franchise in baseball (Seattle), are likely to be flexible.

Sabers will be rattled. But they'll be sheathed. Thanks to cash. And pressure from millions of us who know there's enough wealth to make 'em all rich.

"When you're thin (economically), that causes (labor) problems," said Ueberroth in a telephone interview Tuesday. "But when both sides come to the table with a lot at risk, that augers well."

So, renewed free-agent bidding and big TV bucks add up to good labor news? "I think that's a tenable conclusion."

For ministers in search of homilies, money may be the root of evil. But to Ueberroth, who is business to the core, money is the solution to most problems. Sell your product well enough, show enough profit, and you can revive the Olympic movement. Find rich new ways to market baseball to television and you can wash away the game's labor problems in a yuletide flood of cash.

Ueberroth's dazzling disregard for moral subtleties, his almost complete disinterest in keeping his hands clean, has worked again. His specialty is real solutions to real problems. His method, almost invariably, is to use money as both the carrot and the stick to defeat the annoying foibles of human nature.

This is the man whose first solution for baseball's drug problem was to pay players to stay clean; put bonus clauses in contacts for players who would submit to drug testing. This also is the fellow who laid the groundwork for two years of legally documented collusion; he called the tune even if he didn't actually call the shots.

Ueberroth's latest success is another ambiguous, but perhaps fitting, seasonal message for the age of the leveraged buyout. Would Bowie Kuhn (or Bartlett Giamatti, another Ivy League type) have had the gall, or the business imagination, to pull off such a TV deal?

Would Kuhn have felt hamstrung by loyalty to baseball's longtime friends at ABC and, to a greater degree, at NBC? No major sport owes more to anybody than baseball owes to NBC; CBS hasn't telecast a big-league game since 1964. What special consideration did NBC get for its 40-year marriage with baseball?

"We weren't tied into going with the highest bidder. Loyalty matters," said Ueberroth yesterday. "NBC was playing on something a little better (for them) than a level field."

Still, the field wasn't tilted enough to save the peacock. Can anybody imagine Kuhn killing "Game of the Week"? That's what Ueberroth did by cutting the network package from 30 to 12 regular season games. That means he has a better package with which to tempt the cable bidders. However, on CBS we're left with the "Game of Every Other Week" -- sometimes.

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