Foul Ball

Whitey Herzog takes a vicious swing at money-driven modern baseball, where only the wealthy win -- and the fans always lose

Because of this deep-seated -- and entirely warranted -- distrust, Rosentraub says, "The gap in confidence between the owners and the players is probably the largest in baseball of all the sports, given a much longer history, a much more bitter history in labor relations than exists in the other three sports. You can go back in history to the 1870s and find players and owners fighting over players' getting too much money. So this problem is still festering. This is a hurdle to any resolution to the issues we're talking about."

Rosentraub points out that if MLB is going to institute a system of talent and revenue sharing, the Players Association -- according to their basic agreement -- has to approve the plan, but the owners traditionally have excluded the Players Association from the decision-making table unless absolutely compelled. As Herzog says, "The owners go into a meeting, and they come out and they have a press conference, and they tell them all the things they're going to do. They haven't discussed it with the union. If I was Donald Fehr (current head of the Players Association) and the owners would do that to me, I'd be mad, too."

But as supportive as Herzog is of the union's inclusion in discussions of baseball's future, and as thankful as he is for the benefits it's won over the years, he believes compromise is now in order. "I'm sitting here talking to you," admits Herzog, "and I'm very happy. I'm retired; I get as much pension from baseball as Iacocca gets from the Chrysler Corp. Never in my days when I was a player did I ever dream that I'd get anything like that. I can't knock it -- the union's done a heck of a job -- but they've got to start looking at some other things."

Costas echoes those sentiments: "Historically, I've always been a players guy," he says. "I think Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame. I think that these guys have been intellectually and morally correct over almost the whole course of the battle. The Players Association, if you go back to the days of Curt Flood, these guys were fighting for what was morally right. They were fighting for dignity, fighting not to be exploited, fighting for a fair share. Now you would think that to these guys as a group the only principle that matters is the ability to make the largest sum of money possible."

Making "the largest sum of money possible" is equally a problem on the other side of the table: The lucrative big-market clubs want to maximize their revenue and see no compelling reason to share. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, for example, appears unlikely to accede willingly to revenue sharing, as his statement in a USA Today season-opening feature makes clear: "There's disparity in the world and in this country. There's disparity between General Motors and some little company. You can't say, 'Well, let's all share everything equal,' or else we should be over in Russia. And it didn't work over there."

Alderson admits that the major-revenue teams have yet to acknowledge the need for change; they're more likely to adopt a ruthlessly Darwinian approach that calls for only the strong to survive. "I'm not saying they don't recognize some problem," says Alderson, "but I don't think those teams see the problem as being as threatening as Kansas City or Montreal would see the problem. In some respects, they would say, 'Look, we don't even need those teams. There's nothing magic about 30 teams. We could just as easily have 28 or 26 or 24, whatever's good for scheduling. We don't need 30.' So I don't think there's a sort of universal appraisal of the problem."

"The big markets are clearly in the minority right now," observes ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer, "and people say to me, 'Why can't the small markets just gang up on the big markets and basically force them to have some sort of revenue sharing?' I suspect the answer is that it would be litigated for years and years and years. The Steinbrenners and the Murdochs would take it to court and nothing would ever happen. Essentially there is no good economic reason for the big-market clubs to submit to revenue sharing, because they don't think long-term. They're not thinking 15 or 20 years out, because that's just not the way businesses work."

Motivating baseball -- owners and players -- to think in the long term is ultimately necessary, of course, but what in the short term will spur change? Self-interest, which causes many of the problems, may also factor into the solution.

From a player's perspective, says Alderson, these trends will eventually take their toll. "I don't think it's a good idea to see a trend where a team like Minnesota takes its payroll from $35 to $25 million or Kansas City does the same thing," he says. "I don't think that's the kind of distribution of resources that even the union would like to see."

"Competitive balance," amplifies Costas, "is a working condition in the same way as padding on the outfield walls, charter planes instead of commercial flights, not playing 22 straight days without approval of the Players Association, how many times a guy can be optioned -- all those things. Competitive balance is an important working condition. Why in the world do I want to be in a league and do I want to be part of a union where we're not only sanctioning but encouraging conditions under which two-thirds of us are consigned to teams that have not a lesser chance but no chance to compete? That's just crazy!"

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