Owners Get Batty

Paul O'Neill, the dour, longtime New York Yankees outfielder, won a world championship with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 and four more rings with the Yankees in the last six years. Suddenly, that's not much of an achievement. It looks like the Arizona Diamondbacks will now get a shot at becoming the only team to win the World Series in both leagues.

This absurd possibility arises because major-league baseball has lost its bearings again. The players are happily extorting fortunes from their bosses. The owners are pleading poverty. The rich teams keep winning, while weak sisters in small markets continue to siphon off the profits via revenue sharing. The Montreal Expos and one other club -- probably the Minnesota Twins -- appear to be headed for extinction, victims of last week's vote for "contraction" by baseball owners that has infuriated players' union chief Donald Fehr. In order to even up the future team count in the two leagues, the D'Backs are probably headed for the American League -- just a year after winning their first world championship in the National.

A mess, no? Absent some miraculous reaching out, the prospects for a new collective-bargaining agreement between players and owners in such a contentious atmosphere are dim. Bush and bin Laden couldn't be farther apart than Fehr and, for instance, Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, the man who first suggested liquidating baseball's most unprofitable teams. Even U.S. lawmakers are taking notice: Some are looking anew at baseball's longstanding anti-trust exemption.

Maybe this is good news for O'Neill, who is retiring after seventeen years in the bigs. The guy has always looked about as cheerful as a flounder: He'd make the perfect poster boy for Baseball 2002.

The irony of the moment (yes, Virginia, irony still exists) is that all this gloom and doom descended on the National Pastime just two days after the most scintillating season in recent history. This year, Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire's home-run record with 73. Rickey Henderson surpassed Ty Cobb's mark for runs scored, and the Seattle Mariners won 116 regular-season games, tying a record set by the Chicago Cubs -- way back in 1906. Four thrilling National League division races went down to the final week. And the game bade farewell to two of its most beloved stars -- the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. and the Padres' Tony Gwynn.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, baseball took a week off to grieve, then helped unite Americans everywhere with the old verities. The 2001 World Series, a thrilling marathon brimming with ninth-inning home-run rallies, will rank among the greatest of all fall classics. It went in the end to the upstart Diamondbacks, a collection of brilliant starting pitchers and aging position stars who stopped one of the great dynasties in sport, the Yankees. Fittingly, the D-Backs did it in boyhood-fantasy style -- in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game. The winning hit was a broken-bat blooper struck by Luis Gonzales, whose usual stock-in-trade is the home run. The losing pitcher was New York's previously indomitable closer, Mariano Rivera, who had saved a record 23 straight post-season games. Anyone who loves baseball -- even New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- had to love this series. It was the perfect ending to a sublime year.

All of that seems curiously distant now, in the way that peace and prosperity seem distant. Think those bearded fanatics in the caves of the Hindu Kush are stubborn? Wait until the players go to war with the club owners this time. It won't be pretty. Union man Fehr called the owners' contraction decision "imprudent, unfortunate," and "the worst manner in which to begin the process of negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement." Meanwhile, baseball commissioner Bud Selig defended the likely demise of two major-league teams: "It makes no sense for major-league baseball to be in markets that generate insufficient local revenues to justify the investment in the franchise."

Some numbers: When shortstop Alex Rodriguez left Seattle for the Texas Rangers last year, he signed a contract worth $25 million a year. The Montreal Expos, around since 1969, attracted only 7,648 fans per game this year, and that team's total box-office revenue amounted to less than half of Rodriguez's salary. Meanwhile, the entire payroll for the Minnesota Twins' 25 players came to $25 million.

The Florida Marlins (born 1993) drew just 15,765 fans per game, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (born 1998) just over 16,000. Even the Oakland A's (formerly the Philadelphia Athletics and the Kansas City Athletics) filled only 26,000 seats each game -- 4,000 below the major-league average. And this was the team that very nearly knocked the Yankees off in round one of the American League playoffs.

The Colorado Rockies are in no immediate danger of expiring, but their plucky ownership group is. Since 1996, attendance figures at Coors Field have dropped from 3.89 million (48,000 per game) to 3.14 million (38,770), while the team has endured four major upheavals in player personnel in three years, two last-place finishes and a major decline in season-ticket sales. At the same time, the 2001 Rockies had the thirteenth-highest payroll in baseball at $65 million -- a far cry from the owners' $8.2 million tab in 1993, the franchise's first year. McMorris and the Monfort Brothers are still struggling to accommodate the $175 million multi-year contracts they awarded last year to free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, despite the unhappy results: These latest experiments in high-altitude futility combined for 25 wins and 21 losses. And despite the expensive automobiles in their driveways, they found themselves peering up from the National League West cellar with the rest of the boys. By spending tons of money, the Marlins won the World Series after five years in the National League; the D'Backs did the trick in four seasons. The Rockies are still trying to keep a couple of relief pitchers attached to their throwing arms while they squeak out 15-14 wins over Pittsburgh for a share of third place.

No wonder McMorris wants to raise the guillotine over the Expos and stuff the Twins full of rotten lutefisk: He says his future stewardship of the team depends on it. He's no conglomerate, he says. There are no fish hooks in his pockets, but he can dig only so deep without going broke. The small-market teams are bleeding the game dry, he says.

Give them their due in terms of facing economic reality, but McMorris and his fellow lords of baseball evidently have the attention spans of gnats. Certainly they don't seem to recall the traumas of 1994, when a 232-day work stoppage alienated millions of fans, forced cancellation of the World Series and put the future of the game in jeopardy. This new crisis could be even more damaging. Just when we need baseball most -- as a social balm, as reassurance that all the world has not gone mad -- the grand old game seems headed straight for disaster. The battle between Donald Fehr's belligerence and, say, the imperial posturing of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner could make for a long, cold winter, and when spring finally comes, there's no assurance that the fat guy in the blue suit will be yelling, "Play ball!" The game has suffered through eight work stoppages, and number nine looks inevitable.

So order your Paul O'Neill posters now, baseball fans. In the sad wake of 2001's glories, his long face fills the bill.


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