Aug 24,2001

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Mr. Selig Goes to Washington

Recent Senate hearings on baseball's "competitive imbalance" were disturbingly familiar, and they might signal the start of yet another labor war between owners and players

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by Neil deMause

The guest list

They were all there -- Bud Selig, baseball commissioner-for-life; George Will, the man who so loves baseball he's on the boards of both the Orioles and the Padres; George Mitchell, the ex-Senator turned commissioner-in-waiting; and Bob Costas, MLB's unofficial salaried ombudsman. Like an ill-begotten baseball McLaughlin Group they trooped into a Senate hearing room last Tuesday, to tell their tales of baseball's woes.

The ostensible purpose for the hearings, called by Senators Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio and Herbert Kohl (D) of Wisconsin, was to investigate baseball's competitive balance, or lack thereof. But there was one conspicuous absence on the speakers' list -- neither Don Fehr nor any other representative of the baseball players or their union was in attendance.

On a mostly uneventful day when DeWine was the only senator even to show up at the hearing, Fehr's absence didn't attract much attention. But there's a good chance the hearing was the first skirmish of the Great Labor War of 2002.

Big market, small market

"Competitive balance," for those who've been living under rocks, is baseball code for "The Yankees win the World Series every year, and when they don't, it's the Braves or some other team with large piles of cash." More than any time in the last 35 years, rich teams are able to blow less rich teams (calling any club owned by a multimillionaire, as they all are, "poor" is beyond the pale of polite semantics) out of the water with their financial might. The Cincinnati Reds or the Oakland A's might sneak into the playoffs every once in a while, but without the ability to re-sign their free agents (see ya, Jason Giambi?), they won't stay there long.

Incidentally, I didnít pick that 35-year figure at random. The year 1965 marked two milestones in baseball history: It was the end of a Yankee dynasty that had won a ridiculous 20 of the previous 42 championships, and it was the first year of the minor-league player draft. The two items were directly related -- for years, the Yankees had secured their success by buying up the best players from cash-starved second-division clubs (not to mention cash-starved minor-league teams). The player draft, which allocated players to teams based on standings, not bank balances, swept the old system into history's dustbin.

It took almost three decades before baseballís class system would recover, but recover it did, as the rich clubs used free agency and the vast new revenue streams made available by cable TV and luxury seating to once again assert their dominance. (They also took advantage of a loophole exempting non-American players from the draft; it's no coincidence that both the Blue Jays' mini-dynasty in the early '90s and the current Yankee run have been fueled by stockpiled Latin American players.)

As in the golden age of baseball inequality, it was more complicated than just "buying a pennant,î of course. The Indians, the Braves, and, of course, the Yankees, have figured out a reliable formula -- get a core of promising youngsters, pay whatever it takes to keep them signed, and then fill in the pieces with free agents and other teams' salary dumps.

It's a strategy that can be carried out only if you have the cash to burn, but hey, all's fair in love and baseball, right?.

Ghosts of labor conflicts past

All this has been true for years now -- as you know all too well if you're, say, a Twins fan. If you want to know why Selig and Co. are suddenly up in arms about "competitive balance," you need go back to 1992, and the last time baseball appointed a commission to investigate its economic problems.

In December 1992, baseball's Economic Study Committee issued a report that was, as John Helyar would write in his definitive history of baseball ownership Lords of the Realm, "a classic in the genre of writing by committee." The report hemmed and hawed about baseball's indefinable economic "crisis." But as committee member Henry Aaron (the Brookings economist, not the ballplayer) noted in his dissenting report, team values were at an all-time high. Aaron suggested that the real problem was that "The industry of baseball is in political chaos, bereft of any governing mechanism by which clubs can agree to share revenues among themselves."

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