Bud Light-headed

Selig and the baseball owners are brewing more bad-faith deals. Plus: A great new boxing film, "Joe and Max."

By Allen Barra

Published March 7, 2002 8:15PM (EST)

Contrary to the current hot rumor in baseball -- and contrary to what the baseball players themselves would love to do -- there isn't going to be a boycott of this year's All-Star Game. Damn. It's almost a shame, really, because such an action would embarrass and humiliate current commissioner Bud Selig, in whose Milwaukee ballpark the game will be played, and that would be a good thing.

The reason that there will be no boycott is simple. Given the average fan's (and, for that matter, the average sportswriter's) knowledge of baseball labor relations, the move could easily backfire and present the players with an unprecedented public relations disaster. Still, we can dream, and it won't do Bud Selig any harm to lose a couple of nights' sleep wondering if it might happen.

Here we are, the first week in March, and the owners and players are just now getting around to discussing the basic agreement. And whose fault is that? After the farce of Selig's "contraction" plan, a transparent ruse that never attempted to remove two Major League teams but merely held the threat of it over the union (to say nothing of the fans) during bargaining procedures and after the firing of the owners' chief negotiator, Paul Beeston, how could any reasonable person expect the players to enter negotiations thinking they'd be dealt with honestly? A couple of days ago, Selig was asked by a reporter if he thought that some players might be out to "stick it to him." His jaunty response was, "I understand some are unhappy about X and about Y, and I have a lot of owners that are angry, too. But what does that do? You can be mad, but as my dad used to say, 'OK, you're mad; now what?' You still have to make a deal."

I don't know how to tell you this, Bud, but it's not X and Y that made the players angry but the cold-blooded way in which you used the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos. Oh, and about that "deal," one of your advisors -- your dad maybe -- should have explained this to you a long time ago: They do not have to make a deal. There is already a deal in place, and it is called the basic agreement, and if it expires, then it is still the model for all labor matters until a new one is agreed upon by both sides. Which means in practical terms, Bud, that these lies and evasive tactics from the owners can go on from now until doomsday and the players don't ever have to buy your line. On top of which the players are fairly happy with the basic agreement as it is and pretty much have been for the last 20 years. It's the owners who go into each labor negotiation since 1980 seeking not to negotiate but to ask the players "How much are you going to give us?"

Well, this time out, the players don't have to give you anything. In 1994, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that because of the owners' exemption from antitrust laws, they were essentially refusing to negotiate in order to create an impasse so they could throw up their hands and say, "Hey, this is going nowhere. We have no choice but to impose our own conditions." Now the courts have made it clear that the owners can't do that, so the only threat the owners can hold over the players is one of a lockout -- which is something the commissioner's office has already promised would not happen. But then the commissioner's office has promised so many things.

What is under heavy discussion right now is baseball's "luxury tax," which, as the union knows, is simply a salary cap in another form. Or at least it is if it works. The point of the tax is supposed to be that a wealthy team cannot spend beyond a certain limit without having to pay a fine (though in the agreement, the term is softened to "tax") to a less fortunate (i.e., smaller-market) team. When the owners agreed to this, they were assuming that the idea of a luxury tax would keep the wealthier teams from spending more for players' salaries, and thus keep prices down for everybody. But it hasn't happened that way. All that's happened is -- horrors -- that the tax has done exactly what the people who proposed it said it was supposed to do, namely to distribute more revenue from the richer teams to the not-as-rich teams.

Baseball's big problem is not so much a disparity between large- and small-market teams in revenue as a disparity between large- and small-market teams in local TV revenue. All teams share equally from the national TV contract, and the Kansas City Royals can possibly sell as many tickets as the Yankees. Ah, but that difference in local TV contracts, that's the rub. Increasingly over the last 10 years or so, the smaller-market teams have asked for a larger slice from the big markets -- they don't have a game to advertise if both teams don't show up, right? -- and this, as much or more than the owners' battle with the players' union, is what has caused tension in baseball.

The players, for their part, are always happy to help the owners in sharing their TV revenue as it puts more money out among more teams for players' salaries. But that's not the revenue the owners wanted to share. What the owners (or at least the handful of owners who control the negotiations) want to share is the players' money, which means they want a tax so high that few teams will sign free agents and salaries will drop.

The players, who have a say in revenue sharing because it affects what their members will eventually be paid, think that the richer clubs should share about 22 percent of the local television revenue (which, of course, represents the biggest disparity between rich and poor teams). The owners' figure is 50 percent, which sounds, on the surface, to be an act of great generosity, but in fact represents to them the level at which rich teams could legitimately say, "Hey, I'd like to be able to go out and sign some high-priced free agents, but I gave too much money to those poor guys in Cleveland or Seattle or Milwaukee or whoever best fits the designation of small market teams these days."

In other words, if the Yankees have to pay 50 percent of the price of signing Jason Giambi to the luxury tax pool, then they probably aren't going to sign Jason Giambi, so that generous 50 percent the Yankees were going to throw in the pot for poor teams now becomes nothing.

This is a nutshell view of what the current struggle is about. And for all the owners' protestations that they don't want to force a work stoppage or lock the players out, don't think for a minute that it can't happen between now and Opening Day. I don't think it will, but I make it no better than 3-to-5 odds that they won't. But then, the owners may have tricks we haven't thought of yet. On second thought, I wouldn't build my vacation around this year's All-Star Game.

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My father always told me that the greatest story in sports was the relationship between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, the German champion, who fought two pressure-packed fights in 1936 and 1938 while a world preparing for war watched and cheered. Schmeling, eight years older and already past his prime, scored one of the great upsets in boxing history when he knocked out Louis in the 12th round of their 1936 bout. And Louis scored the greatest victory of his career two years later, avenging that fight with a first-round knockout.

By now most of us know Joe Louis' story: how he held the heavyweight title longer than anyone else (more than 12 years), wasted money like a rock star, donated entire purses to war relief funds, and wound up paying back a bloodthirsty IRS for nearly three decades. What we didn't know was Schmeling's story. He was vilified in the Western press as a Nazi and friend of Hitler: In fact, Schmeling loathed the Führer and the Nazis. (Indeed, a vengeful Reichstag shunted him off to a German paratroop corps in the hopes that he would be killed in the invasion of Crete.) After the war, Schmeling was hired by Coca-Cola and, on a goodwill tour of the U.S., decided to seek Louis out. After a railroad odyssey across America, he found Louis at a juke joint hangout on the South Side of Chicago where the two talked over old times and became fast friends. Schmeling would eventually be a pallbearer at Joe's funeral.

"Joe and Max," premiering this Saturday on Starz!, beats Spike Lee's project to the screen by at least a year and may also make it unnecessary. Written by Jason Horwitch and directed by Steve James, "Joe and Max" is terrific, one of the best boxing-related movies ever made. The principals, Leonard Roberts as Louis and German actor Til Schweiger as Schmeling, don't look a thing like the real Joe and Max, or at least outside of the ring. What's more important is that they look very much like Louis and Schmeling when they were in the ring, handling the fighters' various shifts, feints and punches with remarkable precision and accuracy.

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The best pre-George Foreman fight book about Muhammad Ali, "Sting Like A Bee," by Jose Torres and Burt Randolph Sugar, has just been reprinted from Contemporary Books with a preface by Norman Mailer and an epilogue by Budd ("On The Waterfront") Schulberg. An essential for any sports library or Muhammad Ali collection ... Richard J. Tofel's "A Legend In the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939" (from Ivan R. Dee Books) is one of the best books about a team since Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer." Unlike Kahn's classic account of the great Jackie Robinson-era Dodgers, Tofel's book focuses on one team, one year and gives a convincing argument that the '39 Yankees were baseball's best team ever. This is a fan's book all the way, exuberant and unapologetic about the author's love for the biggest bunch of bullies (they made a mockery of the pennant race and World Series and led the major leagues in virtually every meaningful category) ever to step on a baseball field. Highly recommended to Yankees fans and haters alike, which I think takes in just about everybody.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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