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BASEBALL

In Bud They Trust

Owners Give Selig the Unprecedented Clout to Establish a Competitive Balance in Baseball

January 26, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN

Meeting in Phoenix last week, major league owners gave Bud Selig, a noted consensus builder, more unilateral power than any commissioner in baseball history. It was an illustration of their trust in Selig to act with discretion but determination in correcting the revenue and competitive disparity--and ultimately, perhaps, forging a new economic system with increased salary restraints.

In unanimously amending the Major League Constitution (formerly known as the Major League Agreement), owners significantly increased Selig's disciplinary authority, restored his ability to act in the best interest of the game and authorized him to "take such action as he deems appropriate to ensure an appropriate level of long-term competitive balance."

"We've handed Bud a fresh sheet of paper and a very urgent knock on the door," said San Diego Padre President Larry Lucchino, who helped write the amendments. "I think it will lead to historic changes, but it may not happen overnight."

Selig now has the power to redirect revenue from the central fund and the muscle to convince high-revenue clubs that they need to share more of their wealth, but any attempt to increase revenue sharing or change the system still will require approval of the players' association, since those subjects are governed by the collective bargaining agreement.

"No one is blind to our obligation [to work with the players' association], but I would hope the association would wake up and realize what everyone else in America realizes, and that is that the revenue and competitive disparity threatens the integrity of the game," Lucchino said.

The threat, of course, stems from the continuing erosion of what Selig legitimately calls "faith and hope" in most major league cities.

The current bargaining agreement authorized a new luxury tax aimed at thwarting the big spenders and an improved revenue-sharing plan designed to make the low-revenue clubs--the bottom 10 will receive about $120 million this year--more competitive. Neither has had much impact.

Salaries continue to soar, and since the end of the 1994-95 strike, only one team not among the top half in payroll has reached the postseason--the 1997 Houston Astros. The eight playoff teams last year were among the 10 top spenders, and the $9.9 million the New York Yankees were charged in the three years of the experimental luxury tax was loose change when measured against the two World Series they won in that span.

Technically, the bargaining agreement ends this year. However, the union is almost certain to pick up its option on 2001, delaying the dreaded possibility of another work stoppage. There are already baseball people who theorize that the owners enhanced Selig's power as a prelude to the next negotiation, providing him with the clout to keep his constituents in line as he bids to get what he failed to get during the last, long labor dispute: a salary cap the union will seemingly never approve.

Selig chooses his words carefully, but he acknowledges that some form of salary restraint is needed and that, in a Nov. 30 owners' meeting in Dallas, he laid down the law, telling owners they had to address the disparity and that he had to have the authority to enact unilateral changes where possible.

"The game is enjoying a wonderful renaissance, and we have to be very protective of that," he said from his Milwaukee office. "The last thing we're looking for is another confrontation, but we have to change the way we do business. We have a staggering amount of disparity and despair. The system isn't working. No league can create competitive balance in the current salary climate without some restraints."

The implication is ominous, but Selig wouldn't say what specific remedies he has in mind or how he intends to use his new power. A blue-ribbon committee that has been studying industry economics is expected to issue a report within the next few weeks. One focus of the panel's deliberations, a source said, has been the need for a strengthened commissioner who can help at times save the owners from themselves.

Selig now has that power--more than even the legendary Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He calls it a stunning development considering:

* The controversy that has always surrounded the position.

* The fact that a divided ownership forced predecessor Fay Vincent to resign in 1992--Selig was a leader in that palace revolt--and ultimately eliminated the "best interest" clause in 1994 because of the unilateral steps Vincent had taken on several controversial issues and its fear that a commissioner might intercede and compromise their militant labor position.

The "best interest" clause has been restored, and Selig can now fine a club $2 million, up from $250,000, and an owner, officer or employee of a club $500,000, up from $250,000. He can levy those fines for conduct "not in the best interest of baseball" or he can take "such other action" as he deems appropriate.

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