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The Owners : Baseball's Newest Heroes

August 07, 1994|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor/Doubleday). He is now working on a book about columnist Walter Winchell

NEW YORK — If there is a baseball strike this Friday as expected, rest assured the players will be the ones castigated for it. According to a recent poll in Baseball Weekly, 45% of the public will hold the players responsible, as opposed to only 28% who will blame the owners. Players are greedy, fans have long grumped. They are forcing the game off the field, and ticket prices through the roof. What are the beleaguered owners to do? To save their game, owners must invoke discipline like schoolteachers in a classroom of unruly students. Or so the cliche goes.

It is a peculiar turn of events that has the fans demonizing the players and siding with the plutocrats. We are supposed to be a meritocracy, and there may be no more meritocratic institution than sports. Breeding, wealth, connections, education count for nothing on the athletic field. Only talent matters. Mike Piazza earns his salary because he can whack a ball out of the stadium. What did Dodgers' owner Peter O'Malley do to earn his millions aside from having the good fortune to be Walter O'Malley's son?

To be even a good baseball player, much less a great one, may be a gift, but it is a gift few individuals possess--so few, in fact, that the scarcity has driven up the price of each. To stop the upward spiral, the owners want to impose a salary cap--another name for a spending cap. Under a cap, the players would agree to limit their salaries and thus save the owners from the folly of paying those salaries. The players, reasonably, are refusing to do so. If you don't want to pay the players millions of dollars, the players' negotiator, Don Fehr, has told the owners, it's simple: Just say "no."

There are few labor situations in which the merits so clearly rest with one side as they do here. Nonetheless, the owners have cleverly exploited public resentment toward young men, many of them black and Latino, by depicting them as spoiled and overpaid--as if the owners, who do nothing, aren't. "I'd pay to be a major leaguer," some fans grouse, as no doubt they would--but only because they don't possess the skills to play major league baseball without paying for the privilege. If they had the skills of a Barry Bonds or a Frank Thomas, believe me, they wouldn't pay--they would want to be paid, and paid well.

But the owners aren't only exploiting our envy of the players; they are also tapping a fundamental change in our economic thinking over the last 15 years--a change that has us identifying with the sort of men Americans once roundly denounced as economic royalists. Instead, we are denouncing working people, be they striking baseball players, air-traffic controllers or Teamsters.

Truth is, there has never been much overt class antagonism in America. Here, opportunity was always regarded as more important than equality. Though there have been periods when class conflicts flared--notably in the Jacksonian period, at the end of the 19th Century and during the Great Depression--Americans generally submerged their class warfare in subtle cultural warfare. Indeed, the whole idea of class was made to seem un-American and socialistic. In this country, we are told, class bounds are permeable. Paupers can become millionaires and millionaires paupers. In those circumstances, largely mythic to be sure, there is no real need for class solidarity, because there are no permanent classes to feel solidarity with.

This isn't to say that Americans haven't been aware of discrepancies of wealth and power between rich and poor, especially when the gaps became canyons and the wealthy flaunted their gains, as they did in the 1920s. But even then, the crash and the Depression served as correctives, economic justice translated into moral justice. By the time of postwar prosperity, the rifts had been healed, the anger dissipated, the sense of classlessness, or at least hopefulness, restored.

It wasn't until the '80s, with the massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the upper classes under Ronald Reagan, that the egregious disparities of wealth once again taunted the American working class, now being called the middle class. But this time there was only a recession to punish the rich, not the grand moral antidote of the '30s. People were and are angry--angry that they didn't get more benefits from the high times, angry that most families must have two wage earners now to make ends meet, angry that they, as taxpayers, have to shoulder the burden for economic debacles like the savings-and-loan scandals that enriched the few.

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