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.

The little guys don't often win, and the fans stop showing up. But baseball's new revenue-sharing and luxury tax schemes may provide some relief. Rich teams with high attendance and lucrative TV contracts would contribute to poorer clubs on the ropes, and the teams with the highest player payrolls would pay a "tax" to help the Oaklands and the Detroits out of the doldrums. As of August 1, the lordly Yankees were carrying a tops-in-baseball payroll of $66 million, and the Baltimore Orioles were second, with nearly $61 million. Together they would pay $9.5 million more in "luxury taxes" to support the poorer clubs, and while that may not bring Barry Bonds back to the Pirates, it could translate as a few more tallies in the win column.

Many baseball people decry this form of corporate welfare, but it isn't going away anytime soon. While they wait, the naysayers would probably love to see a World Series matchup this year between the Yankees and the team that trails the World Champion Atlanta Braves by just half a dozen games in the National League East. That team is the Montreal Expos, and it has the smallest payroll in baseball--just $23.5 million.

* Play ball! With labor strife practically kicked off the schedule at last and memories of the 232-day strike beginning to fade from memory, players and fans can concentrate on the final two months of a scintillating, power-charged 1996 baseball season.

In the American League, four players from four different teams were hitting .350 or better (according to stats through last weekend), and basher Mark McGwire of the Oakland A's, who had hit 43 home runs, was on a pace to break Roger Maris's 35-year-old season record of 61. Albert Belle, the temperamental brawler of the Cleveland Indians who has been called the least popular player in the game (outside of Cleveland, that is), had slammed 39 dingers himself. Should he catch Mr. Maris, the emotional fireworks around the country could be quite a spectacle. In any case, Cleveland is the AL favorite for a return trip to the Series. But don't count out those damn Yankees: With troubled ex-New York Mets Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden on the comeback trail and former Tiger slugger Cecil Fielder swinging big lumber, the Bronx Bombers are all the way back.

The National League isn't playing wallflower at the dance, either. Right here in Denver, Rockies Ellis Burks and Eric Young are enjoying "career years" with batting averages around .340, and the club will for the second straight year feature three hitters with more than thirty home runs. The missing Blake Street Bomber in '96 is Larry Walker, out for most of the season with a broken collarbone, but he's back for the playoff run.

At Wrigley Field, Sammy Sosa had hit 39 homers in this power-mad year, and catcher Todd Hundley, of the lowly but hopeful New York Mets, had 36, just four short of the all-time record for a National League catcher. In both leagues, .300 hitters come by the bushelful, but Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, who was originally signed as a favor to a friend, was hitting a lofty .341 to lead the league last week. Forget about that ancient "tools of ignorance" stuff: Hundley and Piazza are rewriting the old mythology this year.

Lest we forget what pitching means, Atlanta's John Smoltz had run up a 20-6 record with a 2.91 ERA, and Al Leiter twirled a dazzling no-hitter earlier in the year--against our Rockies, it must be said. Back in Atlanta, the lay-down-the-law-firm of Clontz, Wohlers and McMichael have pitched in a combined 182 games, which says something for their durability and for the Braves come playoff time. But let's not forget Kevin Ritz, who has emerged as the best of Colorado's bedeviled starters. Even after Sunday's walk-filled disaster, he's 13-9, while pitching in a park that can turn Walt Weiss into Babe Ruth.

Who can wait for October? No one's going to cancel the World Series this year, and if, in his final at-bat of the year, Mark McGwire has 61 homers in the book, the whole world will be watching.

All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Andre Dawson's knees back together again. But all of a sudden, the game looks a lot healthier than it has in years, thank you. Batter up.