Baseball's Labor Pains

When Andre Dawson announced his retirement last week, a couple of astonished doctors pointed out that the great slugger had undergone twelve knee surgeries in his 21-year career--seven on the right knee, five on the left. Both ravaged knees, the Hawk allowed, are now creaking along "bone on bone."

That's how most fans felt when they heard that bargaining talks in baseball's endlessly acrimonious and foolish labor dispute had hit another snag--this one involving the "service time" players had either accrued or not accrued during the strike of 1994-95. Bare bone grinding against bare bone. Raw nerve hitting raw nerve. That's how it felt all over again when the talks suddenly stalled last Tuesday in New York. This can't be happening, the average fan thought. Take Donald Fehr, Randy Levine and Bud Selig down into the parking garage, give them blindfolds and shoot them. We want our game back.

Well, whaddya know! Somehow, the $400-an-hour lawyers and expensively suited negotiators who have dominated the game for nearly four years look as though they finally will settle their differences. Major-league baseball is nearing a new collective-bargaining agreement that would take it into the next millennium strike-free. When that's done, the players can concentrate on what's important--shoe contracts, groupies and golf--and the fans can happily fork out 26 bucks a pop for club-level seats and $4.75 for a lukewarm bratwurst.

Seriously, folks. Baseball's new contract won't exactly be a cause for celebration--too many have played the fool for too long to blanket them in accolades. But at least that bone-on-bone grinding is almost over. Never again will fans have to feel like they did on September 14, 1994--the day Bud Selig canceled the World Series. No World Series? That was like hearing the sun wouldn't come up tomorrow; all the football games in the world couldn't compensate for the loss. Not deep down in the baseball-lover's tortured chromosomes. No World Series? How about no Bud Selig?

Well, how about it?
One of baseball's first orders of business once the contract is ratified should be to pick a full-time commissioner to replace Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers owner who has served four months longer as "interim" commissioner than Bill Clinton has served as president. In the best of worlds, the new commish would be a whip-smart, no-nonsense sort who has an abiding affection for the grand old game--and whose salary would be paid by the players as well as the owners.

How likely is that? If the owners have their way, not very. Their ideal appointee would be part cheerleader, part puppet. In comparison with the National Football League or pro basketball, baseball has done a woeful job of promoting itself ("It's Baseball and You're an American" does not qualify as top-of-the-line marketing), and it would be in everyone's interest to find a leader who can help repair the game's damaged reputation. But the owners also want a guy who jumps when they say jump. What the game deserves, however, is a tough, fair sort capable of seeing the issues from both sides--employee's and boss's. Good luck.

Some other elements of the new contract could give baseball the boost it's long needed among a ticket-buying public ever more enthralled by the hard knocks of football and hockey and the relentless flashiness of basketball:

* Interleague play and expansion. Although the former remains a controversial concept among hardcore baseball fans--hey, the World Series is only 93 years old--the owners want to phase it in starting next year. New teams in Phoenix and Tampa will begin play in 1998, and in 1999 baseball will likely add two more clubs: The leading expansion candidates are Washington, D.C., Charlotte, N.C., Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico. In three years, then, baseball will probably sport eight four-team divisions with eight divisional winners and eliminate the current wild-card entries in the playoffs. There may also be some interleague realignment in the interest of stoking up regional rivalries. Imagine the Yankees and Mets both playing in the American League, or the Giants and A's in the National. That might happen. With interleague play, the American League's designated-hitter rule is also destined for extinction, in the interest of uniformity.

Meantime, how about White Sox-Cubs games that actually count in the standings?

No one can predict what interleague play will do to batting averages and ERAs, but the book on expansion remains the same: It dilutes the quality of the baseball, especially the pitching, as players who might not otherwise be in the big leagues get their chance on brand-new teams. Established clubs, on the other hand, usually grow stronger. By 1999, for instance, a six-year-old team like the Colorado Rockies could wind up in the World Series.

* Not-so-poor relatives. One of the long-debated issues in baseball's labor woes has been the financial disparity between the so-called "small market" clubs and the fat cats in the big cities. In an era of high-priced free agents and outlandish salaries for .250-hitting left-fielders, franchises in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Minnesota and Milwaukee, among others, find it hard to compete with the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers of the baseball world for top players.

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