Mark the date: May 15. They've started talking about a baseball strike again. And you were beginning to think this season was kind of fun, weren't you?
The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Major League Baseball Players Association is thinking early August as a possible strike point, though no date has been set, and Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 man, said, "It's just one of those contingencies you're forced to consider by the process. But our priority is still to get a deal."
It's no surprise that if the players are going to strike, they're going to strike in August. That's when they did it in 1994, and that's the time to do it. An August strike threatens the cash cow that is the postseason, but leaves enough time to get a deal done and save it.
For the owners, the logical time to move is right after the World Series. That's when salaries are being paid but gate revenue has stopped for the year. That's why Bud Selig's promise that the owners won't lock out the players during the 2002 season or postseason is worth less than a bleacher seat to a Milwaukee Brewers game. It's like the school bully making a solemn promise not to beat you up at any time before the bell rings at the end of school today.
So the players union saying it's thinking of early August as a possible strike date, should it ever have to set a strike date, which it isn't doing yet, isn't exactly big news, but it was kind of the talk of the town Wednesday, and it gave us all a nice chance to stop enjoying the season and start thinking about how it might all come to nothing, as it did eight years ago when the strike wiped out the World Series, something that two world wars, an influenza epidemic, the designated-hitter rule and assorted other disasters had failed to do.
I think that instead of dreading or ignoring the coming labor ugliness, we should try to enjoy it.
For instance, I find it amusing that baseball's labor negotiations are a sort of bizarro-world version of what for want of a better term I'll call the real world. You have the workers saying that the free market is where it's at, and the owners, the capitalists, saying they need protection from the free market, that the free market creates unfair competition in the form of teams with lower revenue having no chance of winning. That is to say, the free market creates winners and losers, and we can't have that. Ownership's solution to the problem is a sort of modified socialism: a salary cap and massive revenue sharing.
As union chief Donald Fehr pointed out this week in a fascinating two-part interview with the Chicago Tribune, the union is not your usual union. It doesn't care about seniority and makes no effort to protect its members from being fired. "If you can't play, you can't play," he says. Fehr says that aside from relatively minor issues such as schedules and pensions, the union has one purpose: "We say [to the owners], 'Pay anybody what you want to pay them, and all we ask is that you don't conspire about it.'"
And the union fights those pinko owners every step of the way on sharing revenue. Why? Doesn't it sound like a good idea to have the rich teams give money to the poor teams to help them out, improve the competitive balance?
Listen to the head of the union: "The question is, will that change the entrepreneurial activities of the clubs, when you tax them at that enormous amount? We think it does," he says. "Similarly, if you are going to take somebody who doesn't invest money, doesn't run the club well, and says, 'Woe is me,' and you're going to say, 'OK, here's a check, you don't have to do anything,' does that make that a more efficient, well-run club or not?"
Is this goofy, or what?
Next thing you know, noncompetitive small-market teams like the Montreal Expos and the Florida Marlins will be battling for a division lead.
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Canseco in Cooperstown?
Jose Canseco retired this week, bringing to a close a career that whatever else it was, was colorful. There was his "Bash Brothers" routine with Mark McGwire, his flirtation with Madonna, his marriage to a woman he referred to at the time as "my first wife." There were the car crashes and the baseballs bouncing off his head and over the fence and the one inning pitched that blew out his arm for good. And there were the towering home runs, like that one in the '89 playoffs in Toronto that might still be going up if it hadn't hit the fifth -- fifth! -- deck.
But was it a Hall of Fame career? Canseco finished with 462 home runs, 23rd on the all-time list, and 1,407 RBIs, 54th. Every person who has hit as many homers as Canseco is either in the Hall of Fame or will be when he becomes eligible. That's not quite true of his RBI figure, but the guy right in front of him is McGwire, and the guy right behind him is Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer.
Canseco probably won't make it because he spent most of his career as a designated hitter, and because he wasn't that spectacular after his first few years in Oakland. He played in more than 120 games and drove in more than 100 runs only once each after 1991, for example. He never lived up to the potential he showed in the late '80s.
Still, I wonder how we'd all feel if Canseco weren't the marvelous physical specimen he was when he came up, if he had reached the majors as a marginal-looking player and then put up the exact same numbers. I feel funny denying a guy entrance to Cooperstown not because he wasn't good enough but because he should have been even better. Canseco did, after all, have six 100-RBI seasons. He did hit 30 or more homers eight times, six of them before the offensive inflation of the mid-'90s. He did steal 40 bases one year -- the first to do so while also hitting 40 home runs -- and 200 in his career.
And while I dislike the designated-hitter rule as much as the next brilliant guy, it is a legal position, and I don't think you can punish a guy for playing it.
If I had a vote for the Hall of Fame, I'd probably vote no on Canseco, just because I'd tend to vote no on guys on the margins, preferring to err on the side of keeping 'em out rather than letting 'em in. But it wouldn't insult me to see him get in. Deserving as I've come to admit Robin Yount is, I'd go to Canseco's plaque first.