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This is a critical season for baseball. We refer not merely to our local favorites--it's always a critical season for the Cubs and White Sox--but to the sport itself. We hear from all circles that the sport is in crisis. There are books, newspaper and magazine articles, television shows, and even congressional hearings on the subject. Even Richard Ford's voice-of-reason backlash in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine--which counseled diminished expectations and a surgical approach to rules changes--was full of proof that the sport is no longer what it was.

Baseball is the national sport (take those surveys to the contrary and fungo them--don't drop-kick them--over the fence), and it can't help reflecting the national state of mind. Baseball has had serious problems for 10 or 15 years now, but they were mostly ignored during the era of Republican opulence. Now, as with the U.S. budget deficit, there is a desire to confront issues that should have been faced long ago--and baseball appears to be in even more of a crisis than the U.S. government.

The deficit is growing--so what? It took a politician to exploit an issue that had been there a long time, and now it's his job to solve it. The baseball owners, on the other hand, brought the sport's current crisis on themselves. The firing last September of commissioner Fay Vincent shook the game's credibility and robbed the ensuing postseason of much of its luster. (I find it painful but necessary to admit that, going into the new season, I have yet to see even a brief replay of Devon White's spectacular World Series catch, which has been compared to Willie Mays's 1954 grab and throw.) That credibility had already been shaken by owners who claimed poverty while shelling out multimillion-dollar salaries to reserve players, a trend that, if anything, worsened over the off-season.

The sense of crisis is heightened by the upcoming expiration of the billion-dollar television contract with the CBS network. More than anything else, this contract had fueled the rise in salaries over the last few years. If the networks make good on their pledge to scale back the money paid for baseball broadcast rights, the teams will be stuck with finding a way to pay those exorbitant extended contracts they've already committed themselves to. The deficit can only be made up by the fans, who are being squeezed already.

The owners insist on an end to binding arbitration, even though that merely allows one player to compare his earning power with that of another player who is being too well paid by another owner. The owners insist on a salary cap, but there isn't sufficient trust between players and owners to produce such a cap. For one thing, although the owners want the players to sacrifice through a salary cap, the big-market superstation owners are not willing to sacrifice through revenue sharing with the small-market teams, a move that would immediately do more to ensure parity and the health of the sport than any salary cap would. And the players, 20 years after they began to reach comparable footing with the owners, insist they have never yet seen the owners fully open their books. The owners decline to make the increasingly profitable licensing income--from T-shirts and caps to antique jerseys and video games--part of the revenue that would be shared under a cap formula.

There is also a feeling among number-crunching baseball people that the owners are playing with funny money when it comes to insurance and tax dealings. The owners, it appears, are collecting insurance on long-term salaries paid to players no longer capable of playing (how else could they be so cavalier about their contracts?) while writing off the losses and the general depreciation in players and stadia. The owners' reluctance to open the books--either to the players or to the citizenry, in an era of strong feelings on tightening tax breaks for the rich--is therefore predictable.

In fact, all this is natural. Owners get to be owners because they're skilled at making money and converting it into more money. Yet this makes the need for a strong commissioner compelling.

If the owners are smart--and, except for million-dollar contracts to Paul Assenmacher and Dan Pasqua, they appear to be smartening up--they'll bring in a strong, authoritarian commissioner who will play to the fans publicly while siding implicitly with themselves. They now seem resigned to a powerful commissioner. If they choose one--say, a Lee Iacocca (don't laugh) or someone of the sort--then a final and disastrous clash with the players (with the players perhaps making the first attempt in 80 years at forming their own league?) is possible. Talk about a recipe for Armageddon.

If the owners, however, are truly wise, they'll open their books, give the players a say on the next commissioner, and insist on a fair and even sense of concession in talks; then, perhaps, the sport can regain its footing. I am not among the doomsayers who believe baseball is about to lose its billion-dollar TV contract. The owners of TV networks make and conserve their money the same way baseball owners do. They spend millions they'll never get back on sports, then use those sporting events to advertise their other programming. Look at what NBC attempted this year at the Super Bowl with Homicide, for instance. Likewise, CBS, and NBC before it, used baseball's World Series to convert themselves into the number-one prime-time network. The World Series comes at a perfect time to advertise new fall TV shows, and it will continue to be a plum for networks. They can write off the losses in their sports departments while racking up higher profits in their entertainment divisions. When push comes to shove in negotiations between the three major networks and the major leagues, the next TV contract may or may not be bigger than the one about to expire. I'd be very surprised, however, if it were significantly smaller.

What about the players? I think a lot of the enmity directed at the players--by both fans and sportswriters--is misguided. Let's look at ourselves. Let's say we did a mediocre job last year. If we'd been keeping stats, we would have hit .250 with some power but little speed. Our boss comes to us and says that even though we were recently busted for possession of marijuana, we're going to get over $1 million this year to do our job the same as we did it last year. Are we going to turn it down?

So get on the player for not playing as well as he played the year before. Get on him for not running out a grounder or missing the cutoff man. Don't get on him for making $1 million a year. He didn't hold a gun to anybody's head.

The players just want fair market value based on a fair share of the pie. Because the owners have been so duplicitous in the past, the players are not likely to accept a salary cap without a full share of all baseball revenue. Yet they might agree on a two-tiered arbitration system, in which players with under five years of experience are allowed to compare their salaries and performances only to one another's, not to those of a player like Ryne Sandberg, who has used his legitimate threat of free agency to get a salary of $7 million. After five years, a player who desires to remain with his team but who wants to earn a fair salary without the risk of playing out his option would have the opportunity to compare his performance to Sandberg's.

That seems equitable to me. So of course, in the present environment, it has no chance of being taken seriously.

In any case, to return to parallels with present-day politics, there's nothing wrong with baseball that baseball can't cure. Except, of course, that our local teams look sickly.

The Cubs lost Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson during the off-season yet claim they improved themselves. Dont believe it. The Cubs bolstered their bull pen, but their starting rotation is weak. With their anemic lineup, there will be no leads to hand to that vaunted bull pen. Sure, the Cubs have a chance; their division is so bad that only the expansion Florida Marlins and the Pittsburgh Pirates can be written off at the season's outset. And the Cubs could be exciting. I've always loved Derrick May, and this could be his breakout year.

And general manager Larry Himes has always felt the same about Sammy Sosa. Who knows? And Mike Harkey could recover to become the ace the Cubs now need. But the additions of Steve Buechele last year and Willie Wilson in the offseason are desperation moves. Consider also that neither Wilson, who is projected as the team's leadoff man, nor Candy Maldonado, another new recruit, will help the team raise its traditionally measly on-base percentage. The Cubs will finish behind the Pirates, in sixth place.

Jerry Reinsdorf, it's said, is taking a low profile after he led the lynch mob against Fay Vincent last year. Don't believe it. Reinsdorf is leading by example if not by force. His Sox were the most disciplined team monetarily during the offseason. Ergo, they got worse while a lot of other teams, led by stupider owners, got better.

The Sox again enter the season with a rotation that begins with Jack McDowell and then has four number-four starters competing for the second and third spots. The Sox will not win this year because they have obtained no one to bolster McDowell, while prospects Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez continue their slow development.

Young pitchers, its said, will break your heart. South-side fans would be wise to guard theirs this season. They'll finish third. (The Atlanta Braves will win it all.)

The White Sox' hitting, however, looks good again, with Frank Thomas continuing to improve (can he? just watch) and, of course, with the addition of Bo Jackson. Shortly after one o'clock this afternoon, Chicagoans are advised to open their home or office window and cock an ear in the direction of Bill Veeck Stadium. That roar will be the greeting for Bo.

The embodiment, perhaps, of how a sport that was written off might return to form, against all odds. Let's hope he holds up.

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