"Stop us before we spend again!"
Baseball owners, in effect, took this position in the recent
game of chicken between baseball players and owners, a showdown that
resulted in a settlement on the eve of the strike deadline. Texas Ranger
owner Tom Hicks, who paid Alex Rodriguez $252 million over 10 years, now
urges cost containment. "I think a majority of owners, including me," said
Hicks, "would probably like to have even stronger cost containment than
we're talking about right now. I think a lot of owners would have a
preference for a hard salary cap like football has."
The born-again Texas-Ranger-cost-cutter even managed to make
Rodriguez feel guilty. "I would take a cut in pay -- 30 to 40 percent," said
Rodriguez, "if it would make the game better. . . . My main concern is
baseball. When I have kids, I want them to enjoy the best game in the world.
If I'm doing something financially to make the game better, I would do it."
But, the next day, Rodriguez recovered, "What I meant to say was that I love
the game of baseball and I would do anything to help it. It was a dramatic
thing to say. It wasn't literal. I'm not ready to write a check."
Unlike with most other strikes, the baseball public does possess
a stake -- and not just as fans and spectators. Taxpayers usually pony up
the money to build baseball stadiums, induced in part by politicians' phony
claims of future economic benefit. But political scientist Charles C.
Euchner says, "Local economies are very leaky. Money that you spend on a
ticket or on a concession or something like that doesn't just circulate
throughout the city. Often it gets out of the city almost instantly."
In addition to taxpayer benefits, baseball owners also enjoy a
congressionally provided anti-trust exemption. In the NFL or NBA, for
example, an owner may, with relative ease, move his team from City A to City
B. Not so in baseball where, say, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles could
block an owner who seeks to move his team to fairly nearby Washington, D.C.
The owners cry "poor mouth." Yet the Boston Red Sox recently
sold for a record $660 million. When an owner hangs a for-sale sign on a
franchise, somebody, somewhere buys it. And since conglomerates became major
owners, teams generate value in ways difficult to measure using traditional
USA Today's Walter Shapiro called a possible strike unpatriotic.
He wrote that in 1942, baseball sought FDR's advice on whether the game
should continue during World War II. FDR urged baseball to stay in business
because it boosts morale and provides diversion during wartime. "Nothing
would be more cynical," said Shapiro, "than if the ballparks were locked and
empty on the anniversary of September 11. Does anyone at the bargaining
table care that soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan or poised for a new
mission in the Persian Gulf region will be deprived of their baseball fix?
Do the negotiators for the owners and players ever recall those tearful days
last September when America took comfort in the resumption of baseball and
ordinary life? . . . And, most of all, if there is a strike, no one should
ever fail to condemn the owners and players for their selfish red-light
tactics in the midst of another war."
Well, yes, and no. First off, President Bush told us to go about
our daily lives, presumably strikes being a part of that. And 2002 isn't
1942. Now Americans face a blizzard of leisure-time choices, including 500
television channels, DVD, Sony PlayStations, and various other sports
including auto racing, professional wrestling, professional and collegiate
men's and women's basketball, football and soccer. Football long ago knocked
baseball off its perch as the national pastime. Now more of us watch the NFL
than watch baseball. NASCAR ratings frequently surpass those of the baseball
game of the week.
For all these reasons, the public threw up its hands. Down the
road, maybe these saps -- AKA taxpayers -- may balk at paying for stadiums,
luxury skyboxes, parking concessions, tax abatements, and various other
schemes that funnel taxpayer money to billionaire owners. An ABC poll showed
that only 28 percent of Americans called themselves baseball fans, the
lowest level since the last strike ended in April 1995. It found that 75
percent of Americans couldn't care less about the possible baseball strike,
and that only 10 percent expect to miss baseball "a lot" if there is a
strike. Americans sided with the owners, showing little sympathy for the
average baseball player who now earns over $2 million a year.
So baseball settled. Yes, it feared the charge of lack of
patriotism as we approach the anniversary of September 11th, but mostly they
feared losing money. Now,