Baseball still doesn't get it

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2002

Anybody who believed no news was good news knows better now.

Reports this week that the players' union called together a few agents and began trying on strike dates as if they were designer suits -- summer or fall, regular season or playoffs? -- prove that baseball's warring families are nowhere near an agreement.

Look for the posturing and tough talk to start up again at a ballpark near you.

Turns out the lack of whining in public had been apathy, not some clever ruse to buy more time while meaningful progress is made behind the scenes. It seems commissioner Bud Selig and union boss Donald Fehr weren't meeting on the sly in Oslo, after all.

The simmering labor pot is back on boil. If the game had its own color-coded alert system to gauge the seriousness of threats, baseball would be on orange and careening toward red.

Maybe that's why it was so reassuring to turn on ESPN's nationally televised game Wednesday night and find out that Selig was already up and running in full-crisis mode.

''We have all summer to negotiate,'' he said between innings of the Mets-Dodgers game, ''and I'm very hopeful we can come to some satisfactory conclusion.''

Miss America is hopeful, too, that world peace is just around the corner every year, but so far it hasn't materialized. Same with any kind of lasting labor peace in baseball.

The last deal was agreed to in 1996, while the wreckage of the 1994 baseball season and World Series were being dragged off to the scrap heap. That agreement expired last fall, after one of the most memorable Series in a decade, and just before Selig morphed into Tony Soprano and started threatening to whack a few of his weaker associates.

Some people might wonder how a deal that was barely discussed since then will be signed, sealed and delivered in a matter of months. The good news is the players are just as optimistic as Selig that it can get done. Just don't make them promise it will be in time to avert work stoppage No. 9.

''Unfortunately,'' said Alex Rodriguez, baseball's $250-million-dollar man, ''a work stoppage or some sort of strike is the thing that's going to make us come together and unite and come up with remedies.''

And here's the really sad part: It may be too late already.

There's too much supply and too little demand to continue supporting baseball in the grand, overinflated manner to which it's become accustomed. There are too many games and they're getting too expensive. The new ballparks that were going to save the game a few years ago are already losing their luster.

Attendance is down about 5 percent this season and there's no more blaming it on the weather. So last month, owners began making their managers the fall guys. Four lost their jobs in April, doubling the previous record for managers axed in the first month of a season.

Never mind that Joe Torre, channeling the ghosts of John McGraw, Connie Mack and Joe McCarthy, couldn't close the competitive-balance gap between have-nots, like the Milwaukee Brewers, and the haves, such as his Yankees. And over the long term, firing the manager won't work any better than it does for failing sitcoms and soap operas -- eventually you run out of characters to kill off.

The best thing that can be said about all the pink slips is that so far they've kept management and employees from blaming one another for the mess. Don't count on that lasting much longer, either.

The players say they're being, well, forced.

''Sometimes our hands get tied and you're forced into that wall,'' Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox said, mixing his metaphors.

''You don't even want to talk about it,'' New York's Mike Stanton said about the possibility of a strike. ''But there comes a time when your hand is forced.''

The owners swear the status quo will bankrupt all but a few clubs within a matter of years. It was probably no coincidence that three of baseball's top executives stopped off to make a courtesy call in Milwaukee on Wednesday, sitting down with editors and reporters from the city's newspaper.

''No one is smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough to defeat a system that is presently structured the way this one is,'' Larry Lucchino, president of the Boston Red Sox, told the group.

In related news, a Seattle-based company has come up with a way to condense live baseball broadcasts into videos that can be watched in 20 minutes.

At this point, the question is why anybody would bother. The game seems to be disappearing fast enough on its own.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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