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Ball Four is a landmark baseball book, at least in part because it is set in 1969, the year the players' union first flexed its muscles. The first paragraph of Jim Bouton's diary has an ominous ring to it now: "Reported to spring camp in Tempe, Arizona, today, six days late. I was on strike. I'm not sure anybody knew it, but I was." The union threatened a work stoppage during spring training, and the owners--perhaps feeling guilt after having things their way for almost 100 years--threw the players a bone, granting them a few concessions on a pension plan. End of strike, before anyone really knew it was on, and the players have been united ever since.

To return to Bouton--a self-obsessed pitcher who was trying to hang on in the majors with the expansion Seattle Pilots--he had not reported to camp because neither had Lou Piniella, then a 25-year-old rookie. Inspired by the way Piniella put his major-league aspirations on the line, Bouton did the same. Together, they probably weren't going to make $30,000 that year. Bouton states plainly that he had signed a $22,000 contract, and Piniella probably was assigned the then minimum salary of $7,000.

That wouldn't seem to offer much in the way of parallels to the 1994 strike, now that the average salary is $1.2 million. Piniella soon shook off the stigma of being a union man and enjoyed a long and prosperous career in baseball; in fact, he is now on the other side of the owner-player fence as manager of the Seattle Mariners. Bouton had a turbulent last few years in baseball, but is now an owner himself--of a business supplying normal, everyday people with their images on "baseball cards." Yet Bouton is still astute enough to have uttered the best quote about this year's strike. He said that no, the players don't deserve the huge sums of money they are now making, but the owners don't deserve it more. That, in a nutshell, is what this strike is about, and anyone who sides with the owners or succumbs to the cynicism of dismissing both sides as merely greedy had better get it straight before saying anything else on the subject.

Plainly put, the owners want to reassert their control over the game. The strike would end today if the owners were to agree not to institute their draconian new work rules during the off-season before the 1995 campaign. That they won't do--at least not yet. The players have maintained the initiative in their conflicts with the owners since at least 1976--most would say since 1972, time of the first real strike, or since that earlier skirmish in 1969--and rightly so. I think we'd all agree that we pay to see the players, not the owners. Yet what really holds the game's appeal, the players or the teams they play for? That's a bit thornier--especially for fans of the Cubs--and we now seem headed for a worst-case scenario where the players might go one way and the owners (read "teams and leagues as we know them") another--as early as next year.

Basically, just to get everyone on the same page, the owners are insisting on a salary cap--limits (high and low) on the amount each team may spend on players. There are many tortuous nuances to this plan--for instance, the owners want the players to pony up the money to pay for the players' team insurance policies, even though the owners are the beneficiaries of such policies--but the salary cap is really the main and, at present, only item of contention.

Basketball has thrived under a cap (although the cap has played little part in the sport's success), and football has adopted it. In both sports, the cap has functioned as a way to limit salaries and free agency. Baseball players, therefore, are united against it and insist it never be tried in baseball. But wait. It already has been tried in baseball.

Baseball historian John Thorn, coeditor of Total Baseball (which has replaced The Baseball Encyclopedia, in my opinion, as the best resource work on the game), is fond of pointing out that today's player-owner brouhaha is reminiscent of the state of affairs 100 years ago. National League owners crushed the upstart Players League, which existed only in 1890, adopted the four best franchises from the American Association, and formed what was then called "the big league" (yes, the first reference to today's "big leagues"). Those 12 teams reasserted the reserve clause, binding players to a team forever (or at least until they were traded, in which case the clause was reapplied, or were released, in which case they had to fend for themselves), and instituted a salary ceiling of $2,400. For the rest of the century, the owners had it their way.

Not coincidentally, the 1890s were one of the dullest periods in baseball history. To mimic the excitement of the championship series previously conducted between the National League and American Association champions, the owners invented the Temple Cup, fought for by the first- and second-place teams at the end of the season. This was baseball's dirtiest era: players routinely spiked opponents and grabbed them by the belt as they ran on the base paths--fine points the owners weren't concerned about as long as the fans kept coming through the turnstiles. And thanks to the phenomenon of "syndicate ownership," one owner could own stock in two teams and move players from one team to the other. In 1899, the Cleveland Spiders, with all their decent players shipped off to Saint Louis, finished 20-134, by far the worst record ever in a full season. It wasn't until the American League came along in 1901 that a competitive balance was restored (although not where the players themselves were concerned, as both leagues soon agreed to observe the reserve clause).

Yet today's owners shouldn't be blamed for the sins of the forefathers. For most of the 20th century the owners had it their way and the game more or less thrived--although not without owner-instigated traumas like the color barrier, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and the moves of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to the west coast. But in 1972 the owners granted the players arbitration as a way of fending off free agency in the first real player strike, and in 1976 the players earned free agency anyway in the courts. Since then, the players have increasingly controlled the game.

And let's be plain about this, the sport still thrived, growing at an ever greater rate than it did during the owners' heyday. The sport has been competitive, and so-called small-market teams have excelled; the Minnesota Twins are one of three teams to win two championships since 1978 (the LA Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays are the others). The huge salaries have produced a few fat cats, sure, but also Frank Thomas, more disciplined than ever after signing a big contract last year; Greg Maddux, out to win his third straight Cy Young Award this season; and even Barry Bonds, on line for a 40-40 homer/stolen-base season this year--until the strike.

The pertinent question is, how bad is it for the owners? First of all, with new franchises going for $95 million and in more demand than ever across the nation, almost any owner can get out at almost any time at a profit, even after losing money year after year. That's a state of affairs, however, that has driven out the so-called family owners, the families who relied on the sport as their sole source of income. Since when, a fan might ask, are family owners good for the game? The O'Malleys moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and at the other end of the spectrum the Wrigleys let the Cubs languish for decades.

In 125 years of baseball, the players have produced Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and countless other stars. The owners have produced Bill Veeck. Now, whose side should the fan be on?

It is the owners who have put themselves where they are. They have held cities hostage for new stadiums, and they have auctioned off every element of the game to "corporate sponsors." They have spent their money arrogantly at best, stupidly at worst. When the Cubs agreed to pay Paul Assenmacher $1 million, who was to blame? That was not an arbitration figure, not part of a long-term free-agent contract. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros--rightly judging that they could produce a middle reliever when they needed one--traded Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell, then a minor-league prospect, now one of the top hitters in baseball (and at a bargain price for the time being, we might add). Last but not least, the owners lie as a matter of course. When they insist that 19 of 28 teams are going to lose money this year--among them the Cubs, White Sox, and Dodgers--everyone knows they are full of it. Now that they say, well, we meant 12 or 14 teams are going to lose money, one assumes that is a lie as well.

That said, the owners deserve a chance to save the sport from themselves. It is frequently reported--nowhere so much as in the Tribune, however, which also happens to own the Cubs--that arbitration is "unfair" in conjunction with free agency. For instance, as Joseph Reaves pointed out last week in the Trib, a player can "lose" an arbitration case and still earn a million-dollar raise in salary. What's fair about that?

Arbitration, however, is "fair" by definition, and most of these players earn their million-dollar raises because their salaries are kept artificially low until they qualify for arbitration (usually after their third year in the majors). Arbitration--the process by which a player or his agent submits one salary figure, the team another, and an arbitrator decides between one or the other--is good for the game: it ensures that a maverick owner must pay his players a reasonable wage if he wants to keep players the fans have grown attached to (it therefore prevents, by a system of fair rewards, aberrations like the Black Sox scandal, caused by Charles Comiskey's low salaries).

Arbitration, however, can be more fair--or at least more reasonable, from an owner's standpoint--than it is now. Ever since Bruce Sutter earned a $700,000 arbitration salary after Al Hrabosky was granted a million-dollar free-agent contract, "star" young players have received the same treatment in arbitration as veteran players capable of playing out their option. Is that fair? Yes and no. If a Hrabosky was worth $1 million, a Sutter was probably worth even more than that. Yet Sutter was not then eligible to file to become a free agent.

Free agency is a ballplayer's legitimate right at some point in his career. A team may nurse him through the minors and therefore deserve first use of the "finished product," but at some point a player deserves the right we all have--to seek a fair wage on the open market. Playing out one's option to become a free agent is a risky process: a player risks injury, without the security of a long-term contract, in order to obtain it. It is wrong to give younger players, no matter their achievements, the same leverage that a veteran player must risk his career to obtain.

Therefore, let's solve the strike right here. Forget the salary cap; it is an artificial means of limiting salaries and player freedom. Keep free agency, but only after a set time of service, four or six years. Adopt a two-tiered system of arbitration, which would allow young players to argue for a fair wage compared to other young players, but would not allow them to compare their performances to older veterans until they had reached the service limit for free agency. This would institute, basically, a three-tiered salary network: rookies and second-year players earning near the minimum wage, young veterans earning a good deal more, and veterans eligible for free agency earning their full market value.

What is the alternative? If the owners insist on a salary cap, the strike will wipe out the rest of the season. If the owners think they can just wait until the players come crawling back sometime next year, they'll be surprised. It has already been proved there is an abundance of people willing to spend millions of dollars on baseball teams and TV rights who can't get a piece of the action now. I think that if the rest of the season were wiped out there would be a sincere attempt to form a rival major league next spring. In short, the chaos of 1890 would ensue. We'd have fans of the Cubs forced to choose between going to see the Cubs and going to see Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Sammy Sosa, and Randy Myers. Better that, however, than a return to the days when the owners had all the power in baseball.

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