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This is one deadly sin

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 2002

Welcome to A Nincompoop's Understanding of Sports Law 101.

Welcome to A Nincompoop's Understanding of Sports Law 101.

This is an introductory course designed to give novices a rudimentary grasp of the complexities involved in running sports franchises.

I see some of you are back for a second go at this. I'm sure you will fare much better this semester, Vince.

We'll begin today by discussing labor strife in major-league baseball. Can anyone tell me why baseball is on the brink of another strike?

Ooooh, I'm sorry, but that's incorrect. Don't be embarrassed. It's a common misperception. A lot of outsiders mistakenly believe the central issues are revenue sharing and a luxury tax.

No, the answer I was looking for is greed. I also would have accepted avarice and stupidity.

You see, unlike previous labor battles, there is no sink-or-swim issue. Owners are not trying to institute a salary cap. They are not trying to take away arbitration or dilute free agency.

The crux of the revenue-sharing argument is how much money will be dispersed among teams. A few weeks ago, Donald Fehr said the owners were pushing $289-million and the players had a proposal that would work out to about $228-million. That's a $70-million difference. Or in fans' terms, about eight years' worth of Wilson Alvarez.

How about this? Make every team carry Alvarez on its roster for a week. In business terms, this is known as a shared liability. This is an example of the kind of creative brainstorming lacking in baseball.

Now can anyone tell me what substantive changes were made after the strike of 1994-95?

That's right. It was a trick question. There was absolutely nothing gained by that work stoppage. Not unless you're counting the offshore accounts of every player signed by Rangers owner Tom Hicks.

So basically, the same economic structure that led to the cancellation of the '94 World Series also is threatening the 2002 postseason. Another way to look at it? Baseball's leaders orchestrated one disaster then spent the next eight years doing nothing to prevent its sequel.

What's that?

You're wondering how things got this bad in the first place?

Well, I could give you a long, narrative history. I could begin with the National League instituting a salary cap in 1893 when, by gosh, no player was going to make more than $2,400 a season.

But the simple answer is this:

The owners screwed up.

They had treated players like serfs for so long, they were completely unprepared when the union began to challenge the system during the 1970s.

Owners did not have the foresight -- which is a polite way of saying common sense -- to realize players were the product and not just employees.

Players should have been made partners in the business. Whether it was through stock options or an agreement to provide a certain percentage of revenues for payroll, the owners could have bought the players off a long time ago with a manageable system of salary growth.

Instead, the owners fought the players every step of the way. And they lost every fight. The players were unified. The owners were selfish. Thirty years later, nothing has changed.

Did you notice Yankees owner George Steinbrenner complaining about Montreal trading Cliff Floyd to Boston? The Yankees shake down other teams to buy hired guns for the pennant race every season, yet Steinbrenner is miffed when a rival does the same thing.

What does this tell you? Steinbrenner doesn't want to change the system. He's in a big market. He has major revenues. He couldn't care less what happens to the cheapskate in Cincinnati or the sucker in Florida.

That's why the owners always lose.

And that's why baseball is in a mess.

So perhaps you are wondering what the solution is?

Now you're thinking like a commissioner.

Beg your pardon? No, I did not mean that as an insult.

The solution is in the books. Not the accounting books. Not the history books. I'm talking fairy tales and fables. The goose with the golden egg. The dog who lost his bone when he barked at his reflection in the water.

The solution will arrive when owners and players collectively understand they are about to ruin the greatest thing they have going for themselves.

Have we reached that point?

I have no idea. You would like to believe they care enough about the game to quit squeezing the life out of it while looking for another dime.

But the simple truth is neither players nor owners have ever put the game's integrity ahead of their selfish agenda.

Which brings me to your first homework assignment.

I want you to give me 10 good reasons fans might return to the ballpark if there is another work stoppage.

Okay, okay.

Make it one good reason.

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