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Money drives all things MLB

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

Donald Fehr isn't stupid, giving him an edge on most baseball owners, so I predict the union boss for nonsensically rich players will negotiate, manipulate and procrastinate until the game's heels are teetering on the edge of Death Cliff.

Each day as September edges closer, with America's strongest sporting focus turning to football, there will be a declaration from fans, media, politicians or bygone major-leaguers who swear, "If they strike again, we're done with baseball."

As perils reach an apex, there will come an announcement, without the aid of Jimmy Carter or Jesse Jackson, that labor peace has been reached, punctuated by photo ops of Fehr hugging commissioner Bud Selig.

They will sing a duet that claims mutual heroics in avoiding another work stoppage, guaranteeing a World Series in October. Each saying his constituency did it "for the good of the game."

Pass the Rolaids.

Is there another choice that borders on anything but lunacy? Even the most pronounced among ownership bobos and greedy jocks should at least semiunderstand a walkout could trigger a USFL-like demise for MLB while turning Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium into museums.

With the global economy in turbulence, as a majority of American families scrap for stability, Wall Street by now should have convinced us stock values of the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds could dive until they are no more valuable than today's shares of Qwest and Global Crossing.

Baseball guys, you'll be doing it mostly for yourselves. To perpetuate, for a while, the overpriced contracts. To sucker more cities into investing in nine-figure stadiums.

For a century, no other sport has had so much going, including King Football, with generations of deep baseball impact on families across the U.S. landscape, with tens of millions growing up playing the game, learning its unique spins and strategies, appreciating the greatness of stars from Ruth to Robinson to Ryan.

Through the '70s, it wasn't difficult for hard-working, nonaffluent Americans to identify with AL and NL darlings. We saw them as well-to-do cousins who we would enjoy meeting sometime, figuring they would enjoy shaking our hand. Such feelings are more long gone than any Barry Bonds homer.

I dislike talking about the money, but it is the money. Salaries. Ballpark expenses. Ticket prices. Concessions. Parking. More important, the financial state of many Americans.

All that and there is almost no chance of a favorite team, assuming you still have one, putting together a championship contender and then keeping the nucleus intact for several seasons. Remember when many of us could name the eight starters for about every big-league team?

Players, it can be easy to say, are different now. So spoiled. Maybe, but I'm slow to heartily agree. If today's dollars had been available in the '60s, Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose would have been no less dollar-hungry than Jason Giambi and Roberto Alomar. Human nature whatever the stakes.

It's easy to brand players, as a group, for their avarice and willingness of hold out or change teams for somewhat better-arranged zeros on contracts. But how different would you and I be put into their situations?

As individuals, I am convinced Curt Schilling is every bit as good a bloke as Sandy Koufax, Derek Jeter is as solid as young Stan Musial and Gary Sheffield is not close to being as difficult to embrace as the scandalous Denny McLain of 30 years ago.

Trouble is, because of fat money and guaranteed contracts, tough old managers and coaches are limited in how hard they can push overpriced, moody young players. If a nasty conflict erupts over work attitudes involving Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez and manager Grady Little, who do you think is likely to survive?

Even with baseball's heavy 21st century baggage, influenced so mightily by money, the big leagues are mandated to do about everything right to sell patrons, media and a doubting nation on the pluses of paying prices to attend games, to watch on TV and to devoutly follow the sport.

Lately, it's been a case of baseball doing most things in sloppy and inefficient ways, which has the former pastime on America's critical list, possibly one mighty blunder from becoming terminal.

Some way, somehow, there must be at least semisane revenue sharing. Which can be like begging the Gates and Trumps to make things more financially even with the Mizells.

It is a baseball must.

Don't blame George Steinbrenner for using his New York wad to constantly strengthen his club while other franchises dump rich athletes to lessen their red numbers. Baseball's lightweights must unify against monied bullies, finding a measure of brotherly function, to give the have-nots a chance to compete. Otherwise, baseball soon will be hooked to life support.

Is it worth saving?

Principals will decide.

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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