A lot of people have been asking me lately whether I think the baseball players will go out on strike Friday. These are mostly people who have learned that I write a sports column, but they don't read it, so they're unaware of the levels of cluelessness from which I operate.
Still, it's given me a chance to work out my opinions and feelings on the matter in public discussions, and after a spirited give and take with friends and acquaintances I'm happy to say I've come up with a definitive answer: I don't know.
I won't make your eyes glaze over with numbers, but in case you have the good sense not to be following the story here's the basic idea: The team owners want to tax team payrolls over a certain amount -- the so-called luxury tax -- and share a greater portion of revenue among the clubs. The players believe that a luxury tax will limit salaries by punishing teams that spend too much on payroll, so they want the tax to start at a higher level, and the tax itself to be lower. They also want less sharing of revenues than the owners do, for basically the same reason: More revenue sharing will mean less money for the richest teams, which pay the highest salaries. The two sides have agreed broadly on the basic concept that the rich teams need to help the poor teams. They're arguing about how much money should change hands, and when.
And of course, none of this is the real issue. The real issue is that the owners want to create a salary cap, and the players don't want them to. The luxury tax, if severe enough, is a de facto salary cap. If I have to pay a prohibitive tax on any payroll above a certain amount, I'm going to keep my payroll under that amount.
The owners say the problem they're trying to address is competitive imbalance, the fact that small-market teams like the Kansas City Royals and the Pittsburgh Pirates have no chance to win, and please ignore small-market teams that do win, like the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins, and also if you don't mind let's call large-market teams that lose, like the Philadelphia Phillies and the Detroit Tigers, small-market teams, because that helps our argument, and by the way as long as we're talking here, the money that's going to change hands will go not from large- to small-market teams, but from high- to low-revenue teams, which is a different matter, and if you're following all this and believing it makes sense, I've got a beer I can sell you for $7.
Considering that none of the owners' proposals does a single thing to address competitive imbalance, I think it's safe to say that competitive balance is really not the major issue for them. Pretending it is the major issue is their latest in a continuing series of lies to the players -- and fans -- dating back to, I'm not kidding, just after the Civil War, when professional baseball was born. The major issue for them is, of course, maximizing profits, and except to the extent that they lie about it, I can't think of anything wrong with that. If I were the owner of a business, that would be my major issue, dewy sentiments about baseball as a national treasure rather than a business aside.
But fans don't really care about owners' profits, so the owners talk about what the fans are interested in, which is competitive balance, the idea that the local nine ought to have a fighting chance to win a championship from time to time, even if the local nine is not the New York Yankees or the Atlanta Braves.
The players, on the other hand, argue that a salary cap is simply unfair. Baseball generates profits. There is no artificial limit on how much money an owner can put in his pocket, so there shouldn't be one on how much money a player can put in his, especially when you consider that it's the players who generate the revenue in the first place. After all, you pay your money to watch Pedro Martinez pitch, not to watch John Henry pay him.
Fans shouldn't care about the players' salaries any more than they care about the owners' profits. The business of Major League Baseball creates a big bag of money through ticket sales, television revenue, merchandising, concessions, etc., and players and owners are arguing about how to divide up the contents of that bag, an argument that has zero effect on fans.
The fans, surprisingly, don't see it that way. The fans, for the most part, think that baseball players get paid too much, period.
CNN reporter Bruce Morton represented this line of thinking when he declared himself a baseball fan in an on-air commentary Aug. 18, then talked about how negotiators had agreed on a minimum major league salary of $300,000 a year.
"That's a starting salary, a beginner's, what you get the first day you show up in the park asking where your locker is," he said. "Starting lawyers don't make anywhere near that much, or starting doctors, nor even starting plumbers. Congressmen don't. In a just world, $300K might be a fair salary for a third-grade teacher with a record of success. It would certainly be more valuable to society than a shortstop who can turn the double play."
CNN must not have any editors on the clock on Sundays, because I can't believe anyone paying attention would let Morton get away with such cockeyed reasoning, although I'm sure the audience was sitting at home nodding in the affirmative. You tell 'em, Bruce. Ballplayers make toooooooo much money.
First of all, there are no beginners in the major leagues. The worst guy in the big leagues is among the top 750 baseball players in the world, give or take a Cuban or two and maybe a few guys in the Japanese leagues, and I think that in most fields, including education, maybe even including plumbing, $300,000 is not an unheard-of salary among the top 750 practitioners. Just wondering here: How much does Bruce Morton make? Is he in the top 750?
Second of all, and it just can't be that Bruce Morton doesn't know this: People don't get paid based on their value to society. They get paid based on their ability to create revenue. This is a good thing for Bruce Morton, most of whose salary would be going to third grade teachers if it were not true, as would some of mine. Ballplayers get paid more than teachers because people pay to watch ballplayers work. They get paid so incredibly much because people pay so incredibly much to watch them work.
If the ballplayers weren't getting paid that money, the owners would be keeping it. If you believe lower salaries would mean lower ticket prices, go to your local college bookstore and peek at a basic economics text, paying close attention to the chapter about how prices for goods and services are set. (Here's the Cliffs Notes: supply and demand.) And while you're at it, check out the price of a ticket to that college's football games, played by people who don't get paid.
Fans get bent out of shape when Tom Hicks takes $252 million out of his bag and gives it to Alex Rodriguez to play shortstop for the Texas Rangers, but apparently they would have been happy to let Hicks keep the money. This makes no sense. Rodriguez is the best ballplayer in the world and Hicks is an incompetent owner. Why should Tom get the dough and not Alex? Remember, if Alex (or some other player) doesn't get it, it stays in Tom's bag. You don't get it back.
Of course we get upset at the arrogance and selfishness of the players, the way they whine about being underpaid when they're making on average maybe 100 times what the rest of us make. The players being right in their arguments doesn't excuse them for their boorish behavior, but their boorish behavior doesn't mean their arguments are wrong. In other words, someone who makes 100 times my salary who complains to me (through the media) that he's underpaid is a rude, unfeeling creep. But that doesn't mean he's not, in fact, underpaid.
A few weeks ago, Marshall Faulk, arguably the best football player in the world, signed a seven-year contract that will pay him an average of $6.3 million a year, which is about what David Segui makes to play for the Baltimore Orioles. If you've read this far I'm going to assume you know that David Segui is not in the upper echelon of baseball players and never was. He's also not in the upper echelon of salary. Football and baseball fans point to Faulk's contract as evidence that football, which makes more money than baseball, knows what it's doing, that it's a healthy sport. It's certainly healthy for Faulk's employers, the owners of the St. Louis Rams, who get to pocket the rest of what he's worth thanks to the NFL's salary cap. I doubt that most fans would approve of this system if their own pay were limited in the same way.
I think that if most fans really thought it through -- and I don't mean to insult fans by saying most haven't thought it through; these are trivial matters in the scheme of things and there's no need to think them through just to argue about them over Friday night beers -- they'd realize that what bugs them isn't the high salaries, it's the fact that only a few teams can afford to pay the highest of them, or at least only a few admit it, and those teams have an advantage. If the Royals and the Pirates had as good a chance at the championship in any given year as the Yankees and Braves, I don't think fans would be pouting about the high salaries.
I mean, the NFL has competitive balance and fans are thrilled with the salaries. Is there any real difference in your mind between Marshall Faulk's $6 million a year and Alex Rodriguez's $25 million a year? There isn't in mine. If the Rams were the only team that could afford Faulk's $6 million, fans would complain about football's high salaries the way they do now about baseball's.
Here's my prediction: We're going to get to argue about this stuff for a long time, because whatever agreement is reached -- which I think will happen either just before the strike deadline or after a short work stoppage -- will be a compromise on dividing up the bag of money, and it won't address the fundamental issue that matters to fans, which is competitive balance. So hang on to that "Go ahead and strike!" sign you've been carrying to the games. You're going to need it again in a few years.