- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

Unlike this year's Major League Baseball All-Star game a travesty that ended in a tie a definitive victor has emerged from each of the eight baseball work stoppages that have occurred since 1972. The players' union has compiled an undefeated record against the owners. And the fruits of those victories since the union was established in 1966 have been clear: The average player's annual salary has increased 125-fold, rising from $19,000 in 1967 (the first year players shared such information with one another) to $2.38 million 35 years later. Indeed, the average salary has more than doubled since the 232-day 1994-95 strike canceled the 1994 World Series and sliced more than 10 percent of regular-season games from the 1995 schedule.

Those eight work stoppages included both player strikes and owner lockouts. If there is to be a stoppage this year, however, it will be a players' strike, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow afternoon unless negotiators reach an agreement. If the past is any guide, to say nothing of the chasms that separate the parties on the current issues of the day (luxury tax, revenue sharing, drug testing), a strike will take place.

After all, the owners have been pleading poverty for years, but average salaries continue to escalate and franchise values have soared in tandem. As a civic contribution, real estate developer Richard Jacobs and his brother, for example, paid $35 million for the lowly Cleveland Indians in 1986. The Jacobs sold the team in 2000 for $323 million, a Major League Baseball record at the time. Cleveland's taxpayer-subsidized retro ballpark, a bad idea that has become increasingly common over the past 13 years, clearly contributed to the nearly $300 million capital gain realized by the Jacobs.

Meanwhile, the credibility of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, the owners' principal advocate, is in utter shambles. His claim that 25 of 30 teams are losing money is believed by nobody, least of all the players.

In today's climate, there are no incentives for players to make pre-emptive concessions. But that is not to say that will be the case if a strike cancels another World Series. Attendance this year is already down 6.5 percent, with 10 teams suffering declines of more than 10 percent. And while 25 teams clearly are not losing money, there may well be half a dozen or so, including perhaps the defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks, that may not be able to survive under baseball's present financial arrangements.

The guess here is that there will be a strike. Players know that now is the moment of their maximum leverage. They also know that banks, to which teams owe cumulative debts approaching $3.5 billion, may step in and force owners to settle shortly after a strike begins. But players must worry about overplaying their hand.

With a much more management-friendly National Labor Relations Board in office today, compared to 1994-95, the leverage could shift to owners after the season has been canceled, provided their banks let them hold out that long. If the dispute reaches that point, owners are salivating at the prospect of declaring an impasse in negotiations and unilaterally imposing a new regime that would be far more injurious to players' interests than any concessions they might make at the bargaining table.

If, however, the labor dispute reaches the point where maximum leverage flows to the owners, following the cancellation of yet another World Series, both sides may regret the financial price the fans might well exact on the game. By then, of course, it would be too late for either side.

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