What baseball needs to do now

A few modest proposals to prevent the game from squandering whatever fan goodwill remains.

Published August 31, 2002 7:59PM (EDT)

So there won't be a baseball strike. This is unqualified good news. No games were missed, and even better than that, we won't have to hear for a while about labor negotiations, which are boring when they're about your own industry, stultifying when they're about someone else's.

But before we just go back to being regular old fans, dumb and happy, our attractive foreheads unlined by worry about anything other than what's happening on the diamond, let's stop to consider what baseball has to do to fix itself. We don't know all the details of the deal, which still has to be ratified by both the clubs and the players association, but we know enough to know that the mere fact of it, as the lawyers who have been getting way too much ESPN airtime lately might say, doesn't solve baseball's problems.

Baseball continues to have serious issues. Attendance is down and the customers who remain are fuming over a number of things, not the least of which is the game's seeming indifference to them beyond the green stuff that comes out of their wallets.

Here's what baseball has to do over the next four years, when the collective bargaining agreement reached Friday expires:

Owners and players must become partners: This old-school labor-management divide has got to go. The players are no longer exploited workers. They're successful capitalists, which is why they so often sound like management ("Let the free market rule!") during labor negotiations. The owners are capitalists too. They should put aside their outmoded employer-employee roles and realize that they're all on the same side -- the side that collects money from fans and then divides it up.

And what do successful partners do? They tell each other the truth, share information, work for the common good. The owners should open the books to the players -- the real books, not the ones that have all the accounting tricks that show that, say, the Chicago Cubs, who are owned by the Tribune Company, make $27 and a box of coffee mugs each year by selling their games to WGN television, also owned by Tribune Co.

Baseball's a private business. Much as I'd like to see the books, the owners shouldn't have to show them to me or to you or to grandstanding members of Congress. But they should open them up to the players, say, "Look, here's how much money there is. Now, let's figure out how to run this game right."

Open-book management is the only way players will ever trust owners, who have been claiming for more than a century that whatever proposal is on the table will bankrupt the game, and have always been either wrong or exposed as liars. The players won't have to worry that a proposal the owners claim is meant to solve a problem such as competitive imbalance isn't really an attempt to cut into the players' share of the profits, which is to say salaries. Players believe the owners are lying now about the poor financial health of baseball and of individual teams. They're justified in thinking this. That mistrust goes away when the books are opened up.

Fix the game's image: As if there weren't enough to dislike about baseball -- the high prices, the surliness of the players, the inability or unwillingness of some clubs to put a decent team on the field, the designated hitter rule -- Major League Baseball, the company, has for several years been on what has to be the most bizarre and disastrous public relations campaign in the history of American commerce. "Our product stinks!" we've been told. "The game is sick! Your home team has no chance!"

The obvious first step, now that the immediate reason behind this campaign, an attempt to get a better deal from the players, has gone away, is to get some new marketing people. I'm no expert at these things, but I have picked up over the years that one of the better ways to sell your product is to talk about how good it is, not how bad it is.

But baseball has to do more than just stop whining. It has to lose the incredible tin ear it's developed when it comes to the wants and needs of the customers. It has to empathize with the fans, act like it knows how fans think.

The best way to do that would be to get rid of Bud Selig. There are those who say that he's a tenacious backroom guy who gets things done, that he gets a bad rap because he lacks charisma on television. But it's much more than that. Even putting aside the issue that the commissioner of baseball should be a neutral, statesmanlike figure with the best interests of the game in mind, rather than a representative of the owners, Selig is bad for the game precisely because he comes across so poorly. He simply doesn't understand what fans want to see and hear. That came through in his bungling at the All-Star Game and it came through again Friday at the press conference announcing the settlement.

The first question was a meatball: "How did the negative reaction from your fan base influence the negotiations."

Here's how Selig swung and missed: "Well, look, obviously, as someone who reads too much and watches too much, I understand all that reaction, as many of you in this room know. Of course, all of us were very, very sensitive to fan reaction. Both of us had jobs to do, problems to deal with, things to do, and we have now done them, done them without a work stoppage. And so, hopefully, we can move on and, as I say, return the focus back to the field."

No, Bud, no. Here's how you answer that question: "It galvanized us! Are you kidding? That's why we worked all night. We would sooner have cut off our own hands than have one kid be disappointed because he didn't get to go to the ballpark tonight."

And while Bud was at it, he might have smiled, displayed a little happiness, acted like what he was announcing was good news that people wanted to hear, rather than the disappointing third quarter financials for International Widgetdyne.

The players, who can do their share to fix the game's image as well, likewise got off to a lousy new beginning Friday.

Within an hour of word of the settlement leaking out, CNN reporter Jeff Flock was live on the air from outside Wrigley Field, where Cubs players were just starting to arrive. Pitcher Kerry Wood pulled up to the valet parker in a huge black SUV, got out and walked toward the clubhouse door. Flock, perhaps 20 feet away, shouted, "Hey, Kerry! Kerry Wood! Hey, Kerry, how's it feel?" Wood, maybe 20 feet away, clearly in earshot, blithely ignored him. Strolling slowly along in his Hawaiian shirt like the big dude on campus, sipping from a big plastic cup, Wood gave Flock that "I hear you, but I'm so much better than you it's just silly, so I'm not going to acknowledge you" vibe that baseball fans who have had contact with players know all too well.

Players need to do their part. Be nice to the fans. Say hello. Wave. Sign the autographs. Take a second. Have you ever been around a big league dugout during batting practice? Kids crowd around, leaning over the rail, calling the players' names over and over, trying to get their attention, begging for autographs. The players, with a few exceptions, ignore them.

Sure, they're working. They've got jobs to do and usually there are team rules against them signing autographs during batting practice. But how hard would it be to look up, wave, smile and say, "Sorry, can't do it now"?

Players also complain that a lot of those kids they sign for just turn around and sell the autographs to collectibles brokers. Yeah, and then what do the kids do with the money? They buy baseball tickets. It's called the economy. Get over it.

Players can also stop whining about being underpaid, or any of the other things they whine about, even when those beefs are legitimate. Fans don't want to hear it. It's insulting to sit in the living room of someone who makes a fraction of your pay and complain about your salary or your working conditions, and that's exactly what the players do when they whine to the fans, which they do through the media.

Even though the strike was averted, fans have spent the last few weeks talking themselves into the idea that they can do without baseball just fine, thank you. Players and owners both have to go the extra mile to win them back, to convince them that the bickering and nastiness of the last few weeks, which fans found unnecessary and insulting, is now a thing of the past, that baseball has turned over a new leaf.

"I think just by playing these games and finishing the season, it's going to heal some wounds," Cubs third baseman Bill Mueller said Friday.

Ka-Lang! There goes that tin ear again.

Business as usual won't cut it. Teams should run extra promotions, all of them aimed at fans' pocketbooks, because fans are no different than players and owners in what they care about. Sell all remaining upper deck seats for half price. Give every fan a free hot dog and a Coke one night. Hand out coupons for a free game next year. Whatever. Just do something for the fans.

Players should pitch in too. They should go out of their way to make themselves available to fans. Hang around the clubhouse exit after games and visit with people who've waited there to see them. Sign autographs. Make public appearances. And they can run out ground balls while they're at it. This isn't rocket science.

That brings us to the final, but maybe most important, thing that baseball has to do to fix itself:

Get real about sharing revenues: Baseball has had revenue sharing already. The new agreement increases the amount of local revenue shared from 20 percent to 34 percent and also throws in some central fund money to be transferred to low-revenue teams.

The problem here is that whatever numbers baseball uses, it's framing the revenue sharing plan incorrectly by grouping the teams according to how much revenue they bring in, rather than how much revenue they can bring in. What I mean is, instead of just helping teams in small markets, who don't have access to the big television money that large-market teams do, baseball's revenue sharing also rewards large-market teams that mismanage themselves into low revenue producers. In other words: Hello, Philadelphia Phillies, it's your lucky day!

The Phillies play in the fourth largest television market, the largest one with only one team. They have mishandled this good fortune grandly enough to be a low-revenue team, meaning that the greater the revenue sharing, the greater the windfall for team management. Meanwhile, consider the Kansas City Royals, let's say, who play in baseball's smallest market. They must maximize their opportunities -- this isn't something the Royals ever do, but we're speaking theoretically here -- just to reach the revenue level the Phillies achieve through colossal bungling. If the Royals and Phillies bring in the same amount, they collect the same amount from the revenue sharing pool. That's dumb.

Football, with its almost total revenue sharing, has taught us that rewarding bad management leads to perennially bad teams, with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals being prime examples of perfectly profitable organizations that field heinous teams year in and year out.

Baseball owners give a lot of lip service to the idea that competitive imbalance, created by market imbalances, is a serious problem in the game. It's debatable how serious a problem it really is, but it is an issue. We've all seen the numbers on how teams in the upper half of the payroll list have dominated the playoffs in the last few years. Still, the Royals aren't just lousy because they play in a small market. They're lousy because they have lousy management that makes terrible personnel decisions.

With the luxury tax, which will now penalize teams financially when their payroll goes above about $117 million, the owners have done a good job of creating incentives for the behavior they want, which is teams not spending so much on salaries. Revenue sharing should be used the same way. The behavior owners want to see (or so they say) is poorer teams winning more games. Revenue sharing should therefore create incentives for winning. Payments should be tied to on-field success. You shouldn't be able to pull an Arizona Cardinals -- or a Philadelphia Phillies -- and collect money each year without ever fielding a better team, which the current plan allows you to do.

There's been a lot of talk about a payroll floor, a minimum that teams should have to spend on salaries, to prevent owners from simply pocketing revenue sharing funds while their team languishes in the cellar year after year. But the Texas Rangers are proof enough that high salaries don't guarantee a decent team. Require that teams show some improvement before they can collect, and I think you'll see a renaissance in places like Kansas City and Milwaukee.

As baseball has made abundantly clear over the last few years: Money talks.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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