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JOSEPH N. BELL

Baseball Fans Excluded in Labor Beanball War

January 25, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

I'm a consumer of baseball. I get out to maybe 20 or 25 Angels home games a year, and I study the box scores every morning before I have my coffee.

I suspect there are a couple of hundred thousand other Orange Countians who do the same thing. We all relate very directly to that wonderful lament in the musical "Damn Yankees" in which a wife sings plaintively to her husband who is glued to the TV set:

"Six months out of every year,

I might as well be made of stone.

Six months out of every year,

When I'm with him--I'm alone."

Now a good consumer--like a good relief pitcher--can't just plunge into the baseball season without warming up.

"Six more weeks until spring training" is the clarion call.

On the surface, that had a great deal more meaning when I lived in Chicago because it was sounded when the windchill factor was likely to be 50 below and we were up to our jockstraps in snow. It not only meant the beginning of the baseball season but hopefully the end of winter as well.

In Orange County, the weather is beautiful all the time so I no longer sweat out spring. Just baseball. That's enough.

So what happened when I went to the consumer bullpen this week to get ready for the 1990 season? I found an item in Morning Briefings in The Times' sports section saying: "Major league baseball teams were told to put spring training plans on hold until further notice. . . . Feb. 15 is the first day the players can report, and the owners have threatened a lockout if an agreement is not in place by that date."

Two days later, this item was verified when major league owners announced that they would meet on Feb. 9 to decide whether or not to lock their players out of spring training.

Swell. If anybody else ran a business that way, they'd lose their customers to the competition in no time at all. Unless, of course, they had a monopoly on a business that is immune to our antitrust laws and is so deeply embedded in the Americana psyche that the owners can't lose, no matter how they screw it up.

So what's wrong with the agenda currently taking place?

Isn't it just the good old American game of powerful union vs. powerful management that somehow has to be compromised over a bargaining table?

Well, yes and no.

The biggest difference is its impact on the consumer, who has no place else to go and no voice in the negotiations. If we did, you can be damn sure they would have been handled a lot differently.

Owners have been talking about a lockout for well over a year now. A lot of blue chip players months ago signed contracts that contained a lockout clause. Major league owners and players have known for a very long time that the basic contract between them would expire at the end of 1989 and that both sides--and particularly the owners--wanted to make some fundamental changes that could only be resolved after long and difficult negotiations.

So, knowing this, they began meeting a year before the contract expired to work out the problems, right? Not quite. That's much too rational for the people who run baseball. Actually, they didn't begin serious negotiations until a few weeks ago, and they were instantly accompanied by tough talk about "lockouts" and "radical proposals." Not encouraging.

I called the Angels to find out why the negotiations were handled this way and what we Orange County consumers of baseball had to look forward to this spring. Tim Mead--the Angels spokesman who is a very straight shooter--said he didn't think things were nearly as grim as I painted them, but there was little any Angels official could say since the only real answers are in New York, where the negotiations are taking place. At his suggestion, I called Rich Levin in the baseball commissioner's office.

I got the party line. "Actually," Levin told me, "these people have been negotiating since the last week in November. I'm not a labor person, but it's my understanding that things never get serious in any labor negotiation until the last minute. I don't think starting these talks earlier would have made any difference. But we're optimistic."

When I asked him why, he said: "We think the proposal put on the table by the owners was a good one. Now we'll simply have to let the process take its course, so we won't know for a couple of weeks if spring training is going to happen."

(A few weeks earlier, Don Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., was telling New York Times Magazine: "There are deep, difficult issues between the sides. I expect the worst.")

This slow waltz has actually been going on for several years, but the baseball fan hasn't been invited to the dance. We're not very concerned with the merits of the arguments on either side--millionaire owners vs. millionaire players. We're concerned about the resolution of these arguments so we can go to baseball games. And, so far, the movement toward a resolution leading to a 1990 season has been backward.

There is no meaningful pressure we can apply.

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