Monday, September 9, 2002

An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

While it was still going on, major league baseball's recent labor drama was portrayed as a players vs. owners battle royale, with the fan's inalienable right to occasionally root for a winner allegedly at stake. In hindsight it looks more like a mob war.

Before the labor rhetoric heated up last year, baseball’s Capo Regimes like Jeffrey Loria and Carl Pohlad (led by Don Selig, sitting silently above the fray, petting a cat and watching his children run his empire) pushed competitive imbalance instead of narcotics and extorted new stadiums instead of cement contracts. Life was grand, and there was plenty of walking around money to shoot the players’ way, even if the bosses had to pretend to be poor olive oil salesmen when the press came snooping around.

But when George Steinbrenner broke with tradition and started his own television network, Selig and his cohorts reacted like Don Barzini and Bruno Tattaglia post-Solozzo: they all wanted to wet their beaks a little, and if Steinbrenner wouldn’t let them, it was going to mean war.

And war it was. What played out over the past few months was essentially an attempt by a certain faction of owners -- led by Selig -- to whack the old man in New York.

And whacked he was, at least financially.

Under the new agreement, well-run teams like the Yankees -- and to a lesser extent the Giants, Mariners, Indians, and Cardinals -- are forced to funnel even greater amounts of money than before to clueless organizations like the Phillies, Angels, and Tigers, who will in no way be required to spend their checks on improving their teams or otherwise investing in the growth of their organizations.

The competitive disincentives that caused the slashed-payroll train wrecks in Montreal, Florida, and Minnesota (low revenues = larger revenue sharing checks) still rule the day. With more Yankee dollars up for grabs, more teams are likely to see the benefit in putting a poor product on the field.

Clearly the owners who brokered this deal were not too worried about competitive balance. The single most important weapon of low-revenue teams trying to compete -- draft pick compensation for lost free-agents -- is eliminated under the new agreement.

But let’s give the owners their due. Unlike past negotiations that resulted in meritorious unfair labor practices lawsuits, this time the owners bargained more or less fairly for everything they got. Still, like Don Corleone’s rivals, the owners couldn't have gotten to the old man if it weren’t for the bumbling of those around him. In order to extract such a favorable deal, Selig and company needed help. In short, they needed a Fredo. Enter the players’ union.

Kind words (such as these) are routinely heaped upon the players’ union, but this time around Don Fehr and his clients were beaten badly, at least compared to past negotiations. The deal the players agreed to penalizes the teams most likely to spend their money on player contracts. It will lower players' salaries without doing anything to make the game more competitive.

True, the players averted contraction for the time being, but they willingly forfeited their right to contest it when it comes up again in 2007. That means that anywhere from 50 to 100 player jobs could be eliminated without negotiation. Most importantly, by agreeing with the owners that a luxury tax and increased revenue sharing were needed in the first place, the players abandoned their historical commitment to a system in which the free market dictates all.

The players will still make millions under the new agreement, free market or no. It is worth remembering, however, that the public sided with the players in previous labor struggles because the players were on the side of the free market. Everyone could sympathize with the players' desire to sell their talents to the highest bidder.

When the new agreement expires in 2007 and the owners demand more concessions (say, a hard salary cap?), the players may find that they have lost the moral high ground. If their only objection to the owners' demands is that they don't want to preserve their salaries, the drunken boobs holding up signs in the ballparks will (shudder) actually have a point.

Still, some agreement is better than losing another post-season in the name of philosophical consistency. Citizens living under the Five Families were guaranteed their booze, prostitution, and gambling once the mob wars ended. Similarly, now that the labor shooting is over, we are guaranteed baseball for the next four years. Are things perfect? Nah, but I’m willing to turn a blind eye to mostly victimless crimes if you are.