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Original Issue

What's All the Shouting About?

Until baseball players accept a salary cap, owners shouldn't celebrate

Late in the evening of Jan. 18, a triumphant shout arose from behind the closed doors of Salon V at Fort Lauderdale's Marriott Harbor Beach Resort. Moments later major league baseball owners exited the room in such joy that even Marge Schott, the probationer from Cincinnati, gleefully exclaimed, "We're united—for a change." As the lot of them proceeded to another ballroom for dinner, Milwaukee Brewer owner Bud Selig addressed reporters and nearly wept as he talked of "the genuine affection" and diligence of his colleagues.

"Something historic and meaningful—underscore meaningful—has transpired," proclaimed Selig, who serves also as baseball's quasi-commissioner. "For an industry that has been portrayed as rudderless and aimless, we did something that has never been done and never even contemplated."

Whoa, now! Don't let fly the ticker tape just yet. What the owners did, by a 28-0 vote, was reach an agreement among themselves to share revenue on the condition they can get the players to accept a salary cap. That's admirable. But historic? Hardly. It ranks with discovering America in 1493.

The NBA and the NFL, of course, long ago got their versions of revenue sharing up and running. Only in the Jurassic world of baseball would such an idea be passed off as enlightenment. Indeed, the owners' only real achievement in Salon V was that they agreed on anything at all. It was a year ago last Dec. 7—a date infamous enough already—that the owners voted to reopen their collective bargaining agreement with the players, a first shot in their battle to establish a new pay system. It took them more than the past 13 months just to persuade themselves what that system should be. How long, then, will it take to convince the players? Let's just say the over-under is safely on the other side of the shelf life of a Rickey Henderson hamstring.

Players Association executive director Donald Fehr has shown no interest in a cap. If the owners need to share revenues to aid the Brewers, the California Angels, the Kansas City Royals, the Minnesota Twins, the Montreal Expos, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners—the clubs likely to be subsidized by richer teams—"they should just go ahead and share revenues," Fehr says.

Richard Ravitch, a seasoned troubleshooter who was hired in 1991 to serve as the owners' chief labor negotiator, will argue that a cap benefits players because it would rein in the increasingly Hollywood-like pay scale, under which about 10% of the players make more than half the money being paid. A cap would also, Ravitch says, "enhance competitive balance," though that would appear necessary only for the poorest (or is it the most mismanaged?) franchises. The past 20 league pennants have been won by 15 different franchises.

Ravitch is not one to shrink from a treacherous job: He actually ran for mayor of New York in 1989. It is true, too, that he is empowered like none of his predecessors; the owners decided not to hire a commissioner until his work is done. However, Ravitch may be underestimating the difficulty in convincing the union to accept a cap. There is the mailer of the union's undefeated record in these sorts of encounters to consider. "I don't think it's going to be easy for him," says one hopeful but skeptical American League owner. "I think he's taking too much for granted. The union is too tough and too smart."

Ravitch can succeed only if he reaches the union on a philosophical level as well as a financial one. As the NBA was able to do in 1983, he must sell the players on a partnership, not just a salary cap. Several NBA teams were near collapse when owners and players coalesced and ultimately turned their struggling league into a huge success story. While baseball hasn't fallen to the depths the NBA reached, Ravitch must convince Fehr and the players of their stake in the preservation and selling of the game, and that the relationship must be cooperative. For instance, the joint television venture between baseball and ABC and NBC, called The Baseball Network, must be a primary vehicle in regaining lost fans and turning on new ones—but it will succeed only if the owners invite the players to have a lead role.

It is a difficult sell, especially given the acrimonious history the two sides bring to the table. The risk of failure is enormous. The players hold their heaviest hammer around September, when a strike would jeopardize much of the owners' TV income and the ambitious new expanded playoff format—not to mention the loyalties of a tenuous fan base. There will be no one to root for in the next work stoppage, only, as former commissioner Fay Vincent liked to say, the perception of "cheap billionaires fighting with whiny millionaires."

"No change comes without some trauma," Selig has said repeatedly. The worst of the owners' trauma is yet to come, but so, too, is the most meaningful of change. Despite their cheer in Fort Lauderdale, the owners will have accomplished nothing until they establish a real partnership with the players. Only then will they have something to shout about.