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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, December 05, 2001
Keeping the Dominoes from Falling
Don’s update on the contraction issue.
Pondering The Next Moves in Baseball?s Surreal Game of Chicken
We?ve made it to the least cheery Christmas season in memory, what with saber rattling, economic downturn, and two forms of contraction staring us in the face. (The first form?contraction of our civil liberties under the ruse of ?greater security??is clearly the more venal of the two, but this is not the space in which to dwell at length over the malfeasance of our ?leaders? in Washington.)
Ironically, another group of those government ?leaders? will start interacting with the forces trying to impose that second form of contraction?the willful, deliberate and totally unnecessary murder of two baseball franchises (to be named later?). Bud Selig will take his hopelessly overexposed puss to Washington this week, where he will attempt to convince Congress that major league baseball is virtually bankrupt.
That they are?but not financially.
You all know that I called Bud (?affectionately? known here as Budzilla, but also often referred to by many of you as Beelzebud) the ?President of the Liar?s Club? in these cyberpages some three weeks ago. Since then, a number of more timorous (read: professional) sports journalists have begun to join me in such a charge.
You have to give Bud his due, though. Not content with lying on an ordinary scale, he?s now stepped up to logarithmic prevarication. The age-old American tradition of the tall tale has been taken to skyscraper proportions by Selig: his recent claim that baseball lost $500 million in the last year is funnier than even the best howlers concocted by Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and the still-missing Ambrose Bierce (whose four-score and seven years-long disappearing act is one Bud should consider emulating).
Congress will begin to look into this matter this week, which probably won?t get us anywhere, but it will give Bud a platform from which he can attempt to sell his most recent?and biggest?lie.
What all of us who are baseball fans want to know, of course, is how this latest bit of choreographed chaos is going to play out. I?d like to interject a few thoughts on that subject that will hopefully seem more cogent than crabby (though the margin will be as whisper-thin as that fatal vote in Florida).
First, contraction. The biggest question about it is whether the owners have the right to unilaterally impose it. That?s more important than any of the deadlines that loom around it. (Baseball, of course, is hurting its own cash flow by pressing this issue, because tickets can?t be sold without a schedule, and without a resolution to this matter, there?s no schedule. With an economic downturn in progress, baseball risks losing some of its fan base, who will opt to spend their dwindling discretionary income elsewhere while the owners fiddle with the domino of contraction.)
The key decision point about contraction will come at the hands of the NLRB arbitrator, Shyam Das. If Das rules that the owners must negotiate contraction, it will essentially remove this domino from the table.
While I?m no expert on these matters, I?m figuring that it?s about 80/20 that Das will rule that the owners cannot impose contraction unilaterally. You lawyers out there can argue with me, but I think the key sticking point is the precedent-setting that would endanger the rights of union members. Once you establish such a precedent, you invite capricious and malicious utilization of such actions. That, to me, is one of the basic protections to be upheld by labor laws.
The other factor that will be important is whether the owners (via mouthpiece Bud) can convince anyone that their financial situation warrants contraction. I doubt that the economic factors can be totally separated from the legal decision, and as a result Das will have to take into account the credibility (or lack thereof) of the owners? claims.
If Das rules for the owners, we will surely not see baseball played for a while. The Players Union will appeal the ruling, and contract talks will not get started until the appeals process is completed.
But that is the 20% scenario (in my opinion). The likelier scenario is that the owners will be forced to negotiate contraction, and once this becomes the case, the players will have an opportunity to quash it by trading remedies with the owners in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Major league players may wish to keep the status quo, but that is clearly a ?bury your head in the sand? position at this point. There are some problems that have to be dealt with, and with a ruling that says contraction is negotiable, the Players? Union would be in a position to press those issues from a perspective broader than its own self-interest.
What do I mean by this? Here?s a specific example: the players could grant concessions on arbitration policies in exchange for not only the removal of the contraction proposal, but its replacement with a plan to partially remedy the economic disparity in the game?via expansion.
Now hold on, you ask. How can that work? The owners are crying poor, and want to contract, not expand. But contraction is just another ruse, another piece of brinkmanship from a group that just can?t seem to address economic issues in a straightforward (need I say honest?) manner.
What the owners really want is some kind of compromise on the salary structure?and the players can afford to give up some freedom in the arbitration process, if by doing so they create at least 50 more jobs at a time when most industries are laying people off.
The Players Union should give on arbitration once the owners agree to expand into New York and Los Angeles with two new franchises in 2004. The owners can be given leeway to decide if they want to move ?sick? franchises and create new expansion teams in the abandoned cities, but the best solution is to find solid ownership candidates for the new big-market franchises. The best remedy for a ?sick? franchise is relocation, but there are still places other than the two mega-markets to move into: there?s always ?northern Virginia?, where either the Expos or the Marlins can be renamed the Beltway Bandits.
But George Steinbrenner and Rupert Murdoch will never go along with this, you protest. They have territorial rights!
Of course, those ?rights? are an artificial construction being used in a monopolist?s shell game, and quite probably won?t stand up to scrutiny in a comprehensive examination of baseball?s bizarre anti-trust exemption?something that Congress just might get around to if they feel that Budzilla has lied to them.
Or should I say?lied too egregiously. Lying is as American as apple pie, but even given that, there are limits to what can be gotten away with.
Now, at a time when your Attorney General is actively planning to incrementally divest the average American citizen of his civil rights, I see no reason why baseball can?t step up to the plate and say ?George, Rupert, you?re going to have to take one for the team.?
In other words, there are times when even capitalists have to be brought to heel.
The Players Union may protest that it?s not part of their purview to engage in such negotiations. That may have been true in the past; but these are unique times. The union may need to take some initiatives that would have seemed inappropriate in the past.
Events may transpire in the next few weeks that make this one of those times.
The arbitration process is biased in the favor of the players, and recasting it in a way that reduces the salary inflation of pre-free agent players is a significant concession. And it?s a fair one all the way around.
Tying this concession to an agreement to expand rather than contract is the only way that the game will have a credible growth path open to it, and that will allow constructive methods of dealing with structural imbalance.
(However, it?s still up to the owners to deal with lingering economic disparity. They need to close the loophole that lets teams ?sandbag? and simply pocket ?luxury tax? money, as has been the case under the current CBA. The players cannot, and should not, be forced to solve that problem.)
If Shyam Das gives the Players Union a leg up in this matter, the opportunity for meaningful, positive change will be in their hands. If he doesn?t, we are in for a long siege.
Will Das tip the domino, or will he shove the owners? brinkmanship back down their throats? I?ve told you what I think; now it?s your turn.
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