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Los Angeles Times Special Report / Baseball : The World Series Was to Have Started Today, Instead a Labor Dispute Killed it: Clearly We've Reached. . . : The End of Innocence : When the Fairy Tale is Over, It Looks Like a Grim Future for the National Pastime

October 22, 1994|MIKE KUPPER | Mike Kupper is a Times assistant sports editor

"Grandpa, how come there's pro football and pro basketball but there's no pro baseball?"

"Well, Petey, fact is, there used to be pro baseball. Major league baseball, they called it. And it was big. There were teams in all the major cities--some cities even had two--and baseball was known as the national pastime.

"Heck, there were pro baseball teams long before there were any pro football teams and long before the game of basketball had even been invented. And right around this time of year was the best time of all for baseball. October was always World Series time."

"World Series?"

"Right. There were two leagues, the National and American. The teams in those leagues would start their seasons in April and play almost every day or night right through the summer until the end of September.

"You know how in the NFL and the NBA, every team plays every other team? Well, it didn't work that way in baseball. Teams stayed in their leagues until the very end. That's one of the things that made the World Series so special--the American League champion played the National League champion in a seven-game series."

"Gosh, that sounds exciting, Grandpa. Did people get excited?"

"They sure did. Do you remember last July, when I took you to the circus? Well, the place where they had the circus used to be a baseball stadium. It was called Dodger Stadium then because the Los Angeles Dodgers played there. When the Dodgers played in the World Series, it was full of people. And millions more watched on television or listened on the radio. It was sort of like having a week's worth of Super Bowl games.

"And some of the most exciting baseball seemed to come out of the World Series. Babe Ruth pointed to where he was going to hit a home run, then hit one there. Don Larsen pitched a perfect game. Willie Mays made an over-the-shoulder catch that robbed Vic Wertz of a home run. Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in one game. Kirk Gibson was hurt one year and could hardly walk but he made it to the plate and hit a home run that just wiped out the Oakland A's and won the Series for the Dodgers."

"Of course, there were some awful bonehead plays, too, but that all added to the fun."

"Gee, Grandpa, that sounds so neat. I'd like to see a World Series some time. What happened to baseball? How come we only have kids' baseball now?"

"Oh, that's a long, sad story, Petey. Let's see, you're 8 now? Well, big league baseball started to disappear about 10 years before you were born, back in 1994, I think it was.

"The problem was, baseball had grown so big but the players and the guys who owned the teams couldn't agree how to split up the money. You would have thought that grown men and women could have worked out some kind of compromise that would have made everybody happy, and rich, but it just didn't happen.

"The owners said they couldn't make any money if they had to pay it all to the players, and the players said that without them there couldn't be any baseball so they had it coming."

"Everybody was just being selfish, right, Grandpa?"

"That's about it, Petey. If I remember this right, the owners wanted to start limiting how much the players could make. They called it a salary cap and said if the players were going to share in the profits, they could share in the business risks, too. Well, the players said they lived in a free-market society and could make as much money as the owners would pay them. And always before, the owners had paid them whatever they asked.

"This time, though, the owners wouldn't give in. They said if the players wouldn't accept the salary cap, they'd make them accept it and that they had the legal right to do it. The players said if that was the case, they just wouldn't play anymore, and went on strike."

"What happened then, Grandpa?"

"Well, everybody figured that the owners and players would find a way to compromise but they all got stubborn, instead. Even the federal government couldn't make them see that they were really hurting themselves, and all the people who made a living in baseball, and all the people who liked baseball.

"Pretty soon, they were going back and forth in court. The players were suing the owners one day, then the next day the owners were suing the players. There were lawsuits all over the place. And I remember the first spring training after the strike, the owners called up a lot of minor league players and said these would be their players that season. But the people had seen that trick before, during a football strike, and they knew these weren't major league players. So a lot of them quit going to ballgames.

"What really hurt, though, was that TV pulled its money out and the owners had to rely on the live gate. And the players' union kept pressuring the new 'major leaguers' to join the old players on strike so the caliber of baseball kept getting worse and worse.

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