Bud Selig's buddies

Even good writers are doing bad stories on the issues behind the looming baseball strike. Why is the media peddling the owners' line?

By Allen Barra
Published July 18, 2002 11:57PM (EDT)

I've been covering sports business -- which by definition means mostly baseball business -- for 22 years now. There have been times when I've been amused, surprised, peeved and angered by the coverage of labor problems in the sports press, but 2002 is the first time I've ever felt disgusted. A collective insanity seems to have spread into nearly every corner of sports media, and in some of those corners -- I'm thinking of talk radio as typified by the hosts on WFAN -- it's a form of hysteria.

As I write this, it looks very much as if Major League Baseball is going to have another strike. In point of fact, it has been looking this way for more than two years, or ever since commissioner Bud Selig came up with the idea for a "Blue Ribbon Panel" to evaluate baseball's economic situation. That was the first sign that Selig was planning a war, and the panel actually had some limited success in winning over the press and public. Even the New York Times supported its conclusions in an editorial. Amazingly, no one in the press seemed to notice that the panel contained not a single representative of the Players Association or even of the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR, the organization that baseball trusts with its Hall of Fame research.

Why was SABR excluded? "Because," says Doug Pappas, editor of Between the Lines, the SABR newsletter, "Selig knew very well that our figures (about the economic state of Major League Baseball) weren't going to jive with their figures."

The figures that Selig has been tossing around are in fact believed by almost no one, but the constant and dire predictions of economic disaster, always just around the corner, have been enough to stir a significant portion of the press and public into a heated backlash against the players and the Players Association. Worst of all have been the chorus of "A plague on both your houses!" comments from veteran sportswriters like Sports Illustrated's Frank DeFord and the Washington Post's Tom Boswell, writers who have all been around long enough to put the issues in perspective but who prefer to take the easy way out by fanning the flames of fan anger and resentment.

What are the issues involved in this year's labor problems? Exactly the same ones that have been involved in every work stoppage since 1972. And every single one of those stoppages was preceded by the owners' making new demands of the players -- demands that would restrict their hard-won right to free agency -- while the players were prepared to accept the status quo.

Please read that sentence again carefully before proceeding. Got it? OK.

The next logical question would be: Why do these things keep happening in baseball? And the answer is, They keep happening because the baseball owners remain exempted from antitrust laws, which means, in practical terms, that unlike management in other labor discussions, the baseball owners don't have to actually negotiate. They can simply stall, stall, stall, finally declare an impasse, and try to impose their own conditions on the players. This got them in trouble with the National Labor Relations Board in 1994, but it's a Republican administration with an unproven court this time around, so Selig feels he has nothing to lose by testing it.

Now, let's review the issues involved and see how the media has gone about dropping the ball on each one. Here are the four biggest points of contention in ascending order of importance:

1. Drug testing. This is also a phony issue, and it's no secret that it has exploded into a public issue at the same time the owners are putting pressure on the Players Association. The owners have every reason to want to clamp down on drugs like cocaine, which devalue their property, the players; they have no strong desire to see performance-enhancing drugs banned so long as the players who are using them are helping them to sell tickets. Does anyone really think that, say, the owners of the San Francisco Giants want to have their star slugger tested at random and then suspended for using steroids just before say, the start of the playoffs?

Drugs are a potentially big issue, and one that has to be taken seriously by both labor and management. If there was not threat of a strike, it would probably be allowed to grow into the major issue in baseball. But there isn't the slightest sign that the owners regard steroid testing as an issue worth going to the barricades for. There are many reasonable ways to approach the subject of steroid testing, and the owners haven't tried any of them. For the time being, we can reasonably assume that this is simply something with which they hope to distract the Players Association at a crucial moment.

2. Contraction. This is a non-issue and as such doesn't deserve our attention, except to explain why it's a non-issue. In point of fact Selig has never been clear about why the Twins and Expos or any other two teams should be eliminated, or why, if they were, it would alleviate what he regards as the disastrous financial situation in Major League Baseball. Fans should understand (and writers should be ashamed of themselves for not understanding) that even if Selig was not bluffing about eliminating these two teams, it has nothing to do with their actual financial state. In other words, Selig wasn't saying that the Minnesota Twins were about to go bankrupt; what he was saying was if they and another major league team were eliminated, there would be more revenue sharing money from the "luxury tax" pot to go around, as well as more money from the national television contract. Which is nonsense, of course, because the national TV contracts were signed with the explicit agreement that Major League Baseball would represent a certain number of cities and that if it no longer represented these cities, the contract or contracts would have to be renegotiated and, well, contracted to allow for MLB's smaller market.

Contraction was a silly idea, not just as a workable program -- from that perspective, it's impossible, since Major League Baseball simply does not have the power to "contract" anything, much less a privately owned business -- but from the point of view of a labor ploy, which it was intended to be in the first place. Selig's obvious motive was to threaten to cut 50 jobs from the union rolls; it never seemed to occur to him that some fans might also object. Oh, yes, I almost forgot, the threatened contraction of the Twins was also a ploy to wrangle a new stadium out of Minneapolis taxpayers.

3. Competitive balance. This has been turned by the owners into the key issue, the one that must be redressed if baseball is to have a future. The big market teams, they say, are dominating the game; the Yankees' continued success is killing off the hopes of fans of teams in smaller markets because they can't begin the season with any reasonable expectation that their team can go to the World Series.

How correct is this assessment? For the most part, the owners' contentions about competitive balance are correct -- the Yankees have been in the World Series five times in the last six years and won four times. On the whole, richer teams such as the Yankees and Braves have a far better chance to win than do Pittsburgh, Montreal, Kansas City and a handful of other small market teams. This is the owners' trump card, and they have used it to whip the press and public into an egalitarian fit worthy of a Parisian mob during the French Revolution.

But there are several problems with the owners' competitive balance argument that the press seems happy to overlook. First is the question, almost never addressed by anyone in baseball management, about what constitutes a "big market" or "big revenue" team. There is no denying that the Yankees, the Mets and Dodgers and probably the Red Sox and White Sox fit into both categories, but Selig and the owners have consistently sought to blur the lines regarding nearly everyone else. For instance, a couple of years ago the Baltimore Orioles, because of Camden Yards, were supposed to be one of the big market teams. Then, when a disillusioned Mike Mussina left the Orioles for New York, the Yankees became the rich bullies victimizing the little guy, the Orioles. The Cleveland Indians, who went to the World Series just seven seasons ago, were regarded as a big market team because of the lure of Jacobs Field. Now when the Yankees play the Indians, the New York Times can blare out, as it did on July 3, "Free Spenders Clobber Cost Cutters." In a couple of seasons, the Indians have gone from big market bully to small market victims -- though the victimizers in several situations would seem to be the owners themselves, who are choosing not to put the money back into their teams, but into their own pockets.

The Atlanta Braves, of course, play in a very small market but are one of baseball's two or three highest revenue teams because of their TV network, a fact that further blurs the lines. The Seattle Mariners have been the American League's winningest team over the last three seasons and are frequently cited as a big revenue team because of their handsome new stadium. But before the Mariners entered into this unparalleled era of success, who regarded them as a "big market" team? Remember, they were supposed to be the small market victims who couldn't hold onto superstars such as Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. It seems to have been good business for the Yankees to acquire superstar players of this caliber; it has been equally good business for Seattle to lose them. It's also worth noting that the San Francisco Giants have the best record in baseball from 1997 through 2001, behind the free-spending Yankees and Braves, though their payroll ranks them in the middle of the pack. (They've been between 16th and 11th in payroll over those five years).

The questions continue: Clearly the Los Angeles Dodgers are both a big market and big revenue team, but why are the Anaheim Angels, who share most of the same market with the Dodgers, regarded as a "small market" team? And where does one rank the Philadelphia Phillies? The Phillies play in what is regarded as the fourth largest market in Major League Baseball, a market that they don't have to share with anyone else. Yet the Phillies are constantly ranked with the small revenue teams. At what point, a Phillies fan may legitimately ask, does mismanagement enter into the question of what constitutes a big market and big revenue team?

From Major League Baseball's perspective, the answer to the question "What is a big revenue team?" would seem to be "A winning team." We're all holding our breath to see if the supposedly contraction-bound Minnesota Twins end up the season as a big or small revenue team.

But there are larger, more important questions about "competitive balance" that are not being asked, or rather, a few brave souls are asking them and too few in the mainstream media are picking up on them.

For instance, in the July 5 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Leonard Koppett noted that from 1919 to 1922 the Yankees "Bought Babe Ruth and nine other players, plus the manager, from the Red Sox, who had won four World Series from 1912-18 and finished second twice. The Yankees won six pennants in eight years while the Red Sox fell into the second division for fifteen consecutive years, eight of them in last place ... All of that without free agency. ... Free agency's full effect wasn't felt until 1982. Up to then, teams based in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles finished first 87 times, while Cleveland, Detroit and Washington did so 14. Since 1982, of the 30 teams (some younger than 10 years old), 26 have placed first at least once including Arizona, San Diego, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle, Texas, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, and St. Louis. Which era seems more competitively balanced to you?"

One might ask which sports that have salary caps and more revenue sharing than baseball are more competitively balanced? The NBA? Professional basketball has been dominated by a few powerful teams when the owners were in complete control (the Boston Celtics), when the players and their agents were in complete control (the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls), and when management gained the upper hand (the Houston Rockets, the Bulls, and now, the Lakers again). The Lakers' domination of the NBA over the last three seasons has been greater than the Yankees' at any time in the last six years.

The NFL? The NFL has had a rare period of competitive balance over the last three seasons, but let's wait and see before making any firm judgments. Over the last 22 seasons, 18 different NFL teams have played in the Super Bowl. Over the same period, 20 different teams have played in the World Series.

In other words, compared to other sports, baseball's record of competitive balance is pretty good. And compared to baseball in earlier times, the last couple of decades have been the most competitive in the game's history. Yes, the Yankees have won four World Series in the last sixth years, but except for 1998, they didn't dominate the opposition. In all of their other pennant-winning seasons, there were other teams as good or better than the Yankees; in fact, in the 2000 season the Yankees had the ninth best record in all of baseball.

Finally, we are entitled to ask exactly when the issue of competitive balance became one worth ruining an entire season over. As we near the start of the college football season, for instance, we know well in advance that a handful of teams -- Miami, Florida State, Michigan, Nebraska, et al. -- are going to dominate the national scene, beat the crap out of nearly all the other teams in their conferences, and turn the hunt for the national championship into their own private party. We all know that these football factories are fueled by wealthy alumni and TV appearance money that, no matter how it's shared, leaves a few powerhouses sitting at the top. That's the way it's always been for 100 years and the way it's going to be for 100 more.

Is anyone out there screaming that college football is going to be in trouble if it doesn't establish some kind of competitive balance? Can anyone name any American sports at any time, baseball included, that ever suffered from lack of competitive balance?

4. Revenue sharing. In David Mamet's play "Speed The Plow," an established movie producer tells an aspiring movie producer that "There are three things to remember about this business. Number one is always get gross, never get net." The aspiring producer asks, "What are the other two things?" "Never mind the other two," says the producer, "just remember the first. Always get gross, never get net." Revenue sharing is the "gross" of the baseball labor issues. Forget the others. If the strike comes, this is the issue it will be about.

The owners say they want more "Revenue Sharing" between so-called rich and poor teams in order to bring greater competitive balance to baseball. Selig's greatest triumph has been to turn the phrase "Lower salaries for players" into the slogan "Revenue Sharing." In the world you and I live in, revenue sharing would mean something along the lines of sharing revenue. Every morning, newspaper columnists can be read in support of Selig's revenue sharing plan without having the slightest notion of what it actually means.

It does not mean that Selig and the rest of the baseball owners want richer teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, and Red Sox to share more revenue with smaller market teams such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland, and Montreal. That's already happening.

Over the last six years, more than $674 million of revenue from so-called richer teams has been doled out to so-called smaller teams. This money is produced by what is known as a "luxury tax" in which a team exceeding its payroll limit must hand over 20 percent of that money to a pool to be distributed among the relative have-nots. Selig wants that percentage to be raised to 50 percent.

Why are the players against this? For the very simple reason that with the tax at 20 percent, an owner, say Steinbrenner, will still buy an expensive free agent like Jason Giambi and happily pay the tax if he thinks that the player will bring in enough revenue to more than cover his cost. But at 50 percent, not even Steinbrenner would cover the player, because not even Babe Ruth or Sandy Koufax will bring in enough extra revenue to cover that high a tax. How then would a 50 percent tax succeed in redistributing money from rich to poor? It wouldn't. What it would do is hold down players' salaries, which was Selig's purpose in proposing the 50 percent tax in the first place. Thus, when Selig says "revenue sharing," the players correctly hear "lower salaries."

So far, only the Daily News' Bill Madden and the Yankees' radio announcer, John Stirling, have correctly pointed out that "revenue sharing" has not been used by the poorer teams to help redress the issue of competitive balance since most teams have simply pocketed the money, rather than use it to boost payroll. The owners have not even denied this, with good reason: It's a simple matter for the Players' Association to keep tabs on salary increases, and it's clear that most teams that have benefited from revenue sharing have not increased payrolls. As Madden wrote on July 7, "In 1990 baseball owners took in $1.3 billion in revenues and spent $495 million of it on players' salaries, leaving $805 million to spend on everything else. Last year, those figures had nearly tripled -- with $3.6 billion in revenues, $2 billion spent on players, leaving $1.6 billion for the clubs themselves. Yet, we are told a fifth of the teams are on the verge of bankruptcy ... where did it all go? Obviously not on players' salaries (see: Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers), which is the only way to directly affect competitive balance ... So who's kidding who here when it comes to more revenue sharing addressing baseball's competitive balance?"

If the strike that the owners are forcing was really about "competitive balance" and "revenue sharing," they would approach the Players Association and say, "If you agree to loosen up your control over our revenue sharing -- a control, by the way, which you only have because we offered it to you during negotiations -- then we promise that all of the newly distributed revenue will go to players' salaries." (Exactly how this would be proven would lead to some nasty squabbles, but nothing like we're seeing now.) If Selig did say something like this, the threat of strike would vanish from the horizon faster than the impression made by the last Britney Spears commercial.

But Selig has not said this because he knows very well that the purpose of this work stoppage isn't to distribute money from rich teams to poor teams, but to redistribute it from the players back to the owners. It's sad that the media, which should know better, is letting him get away with it.

Allen Barra

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

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