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The baseball lockout is unique among labor disagreements because at its core it's not about economics, it's about power. Unions can become so strong they can practically dictate terms to ownership--at least they used to be able to--but even at this stage most unions can make the argument that they are simply attempting to get the best deal for their workers, so that the average Joe or Jo can bring home a better meal or afford a better place to stay. And owners can always cite "financial difficulties" in seeking concessions. Yet the baseball lockout is not about such issues; it's about who controls the sport, who "owns" the national pastime. From an owner's standpoint, it's about who accepts the risk for losses, who pays the bills for the minor-league training that produces the major-leaguers belonging to the union, and who's responsible for the teams in all legal aspects. From a player's standpoint, it's about whether the player owns himself, whether he's entitled to a fair deal, and what is left of the sport if its finest players decide not to play. In short, this lockout is about a simple question: where are the resources of the sport located, in its players or in its structure?

Baseball players are in a unique position. As long as their union remains united, they can almost dictate terms. An automaker (or almost any other sort of owner) can replace striking workers with scabs and expect--if the resolve is strong and the skin thick enough to resist the effects of bad publicity--to weather the difficulties and come out strong. The owner has all the resources except for labor, and a stinking cheap resource that is. On the other hand, what is baseball but its players? Would Joe DiMaggio have been any less great had he played for the fictional New York Monarchs instead of the Yankees? Depending on whether the sport's best players were also in the fictional league, maybe and maybe not. (As in the case of the black players denied a spot in major-league baseball before the advent of Jackie Robinson, his accomplishments--like his salary--might be diminished.) Yet in the real world, where baseball's structure is already entrenched by a century of use, and where the owners themselves have put an emphasis on tradition, the players find themselves in ideal circumstances, as far as their negotiating position with the owners goes, as long as they don't threaten the basic structure of the sport--the alignment of teams and the minor-league system. It's important to note that while the players have driven some very hard bargains in negotiations with the owners over the past two decades, they have nevertheless been willing to allow concessions preserving coherent team personalities--placing limits on free agency--and they (the unionized major-league players) have kept their hands off the minor-leaguers.

I was thinking recently about the Federal League, the attempt by players to start a player-owned league in the early 1900s. If--in a worst-case scenario--the owners threatened the players with a season-long lockout, would the players attempt to form their own league, perhaps next year, and would that league (unlike the Federal League) succeed? No doubt in my mind it would. Yet why would the players want to go to such an extreme? Barring utter insanity by the owners--in the form of that season-long lockout-- the players would have no reason to go out on their own. They'd have everything they wanted already--they've won their fair share of the money and their right to seek their fair value on an open market.

What the baseball lockout is about is that the players have fought for and eventually won a fair deal with the owners over two decades of struggle, and the owners--being owners--have been left in a position where "fair" is not good enough for them.

As is so often the case with workers, it's the athletes who most require protection who have the weakest union. Football players face the greatest risk of a career-ending injury, and not coincidentally they have the shortest average career, but their union was effectively busted during their 1988 strike. Football players found that their greatest weakness in their choice of a career--its lack of longevity--was also their greatest weakness in negotiations with the owners, in that they could be replaced. (Rule one in all labor negotiations is that fairness is arbitrary.) Mike Ditka may be barking up a bare tree when he says it's coaching and not players that wins football games, but we're not talking about winning games here; we're talking about winning a labor war. Football fans, for the most part, develop allegiances to teams rather than players, because the turnover of players is so rapid; what football fans look for is a coherent personality reflected by their team from year to year. That's why it's so important for Trace Armstrong to be championed as the next Dan Hampton, because Hampton is soon gone. All a football player can hope for is something like what happened to Mike Singletary: he was championed as the next Dick Butkus, then made himself such a commanding presence during his career that Dante Jones was championed as the next Singletary. On the other hand, baseball fans are attracted to the specific players who make up the team, which is why baseball ticket sales, from team to team, season to season, are so much more volatile than football ticket sales. A south-sider might remain a committed Sox fan, but without a Harold Baines or that colorful (and winning) group of personalities that made up the 1983 team, the fan is much less likely to actually get out to the park.

Of course, economics are involved in the process. Football players have the fewest games during a season, and they have to divide the money up among the most players, more than 50 over the course of the season. (The NFL owners are working on this, giving teams a couple of weeks off during the season but making the season longer in duration, adding weeks, not total games, and therefore pumping up the network-television income. But don't expect this to show up as higher salaries for the players.) Baseball players have the most games and a comparatively small 25 to 30 people to divide the profits among (allowing heavy expenditures at the minor-league level). The example of basketball is instructional here: the sport employs half as many players as baseball, and while it always plays half as many games, they're evened out by the extended play-off season. NBA players now have a higher average salary than even baseball players.

Yet the pool of possible NBA players is deep. Like football, basketball does not pay for the development of its athletes, but draws them from college. College players who fail to make an NBA team go down to the minor leagues and oftentimes develop so that they can catch on somewhere else. A basketball fan develops an allegiance to players, but realizes that one player is usually the heart of the team. If basketball's owners wanted to play hardball, they could easily attempt to lure the best players back from a strike by creating one player-owner position per team--giving the Michael Jordans, Magic Johnsons, and Larry Birds a piece of the profits--and fill out the squads with cheap players. Why haven't they? Because if the sport is run well it will boom, and there will be plenty of money to go around--enough to pay easily replaced bozos like Jon Koncak and Blair Rasmussen million-dollar salaries.

At this point--earlier in the week, with negotiators returning to the bargaining table, but with no agreement in sight--it appears that the main issue keeping baseball's players and owners from such peaceful coexistence is arbitration. The owners argue it's unfair. Yet arbitration is designed to be inherently fair; nothing could possibly be more fair. An arbitrator hears opposing case and decides between two proposed salaries. Arbitrators themselves face a review process where, if it's found they leaned toward the case of either the players or the owners, they are removed. What the owners argue is that if Ryne Sandberg is awarded a $2 million contract, other second basemen shouldn't be allowed to use his salary as a standard for their salaries. Such an argument is absurd. It's like telling a national arbitrator to decide between the cases of an automaker and its autoworkers without consulting profit figures or average salaries. That's not only unfair, it's ridiculous.

The players, on their end, want arbitration extended to players with two full years of major-league service rather than the current limit of three years. The owners have long argued that since they pay to develop a major-leaguer's talent in the minors, they should reap some benefit, and there's a case to be made for that. The union has allowed that a major-leaguer must qualify for arbitration by serving enough time, just as a player must serve five years with a team before filing for free agency. And in 1985, in the interest of a quick settlement, the players agreed to increase the amount of time that needed to be served before a player could file for arbitration. Since then, the owners have abused that privilege, and the players want to take it back. For instance, Bobby Thigpen saved 34 games in 1988, but because he hadn't yet completed three full years of service, he wasn't entitled to arbitration. Last year, he saved another 34 games--for a salary imposed upon him by the White Sox owners of under $100,000, hundreds of thousands of dollars below the major-league average. The players were willing in 1985 to give the owners a concession on this matter. Since that time, enough players have been taken advantage of on that issue that they now are ordering their union to take back the concession.

There's plenty of material here for an extended labor stoppage. Yet, with both sides trying to achieve gains, there is also room for a quick settlement--at the status quo. Commissioner Fay Vincent should order the spring-training camps open, with the old union agreement to remain in force until a new one is reached-- whether that be later this month or in the year 2001. In the meantime, the sport would continue to boom.

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