- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

"Baseball and Billions," a 1992 book chronicling the sport's economic boom of the late 1970s and '80s, represented nothing less than a shock wave in the industry. The book, one of the first to dive fully into the financial state of Major League Baseball, accurately foretold the growing pressures of salary escalation, questionable claims of owner losses and rampant greed that ultimately shut down baseball in 1994 and 1995.
The book's author, Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, has returned to baseball's fractured condition with his new "May the Best Team Win." Baseball is now entering four years of labor peace, but the book should be required reading for close followers of the game. Many of the same financial pressures are threatening another nasty work stoppage in 2007 and could bring plenty of hardships before then.
In short order, Zimbalist contends the new labor deal will not significantly improve baseball's competitive balance. Distrust continues between owners and players, and MLB's legally protected monopoly promotes inertia rather than forward-thinking management.
"In the last couple of years, baseball has almost imploded," Zimbalist writes. "They're still flirting with disaster. The contraction problem, for example, hasn't really gone away. It's still being used as a threat in places like Oakland. And there are so many issues still coming down the pike."
Zimbalist did not intend to write a sequel to "Baseball and Billions" when he started the new book. But he essentially followed up his original tome by documenting perhaps the wildest set of chapters in MLB history. In just the past two years, commissioner Bud Selig and the owners have attempted and failed to wipe out two teams, narrowly averted a labor stoppage with the players, engineered a bizarre ownership swap involving the Boston, Florida and Montreal franchises, stumbled through a high-profile congressional tongue-lashing and were beaten in court by a stadium commission from Minnesota.
The resulting book is the first comprehensive recounting of this historic and altogether strange period. Zimbalist goes a step further and attaches the series of events to an outcry for engaged public policy. Chief among Zimbalist's calls for legislative and administrative change are stripping baseball's long-held antitrust exemption, clarifying federal tax rules and baseball's internal accounting policies to prevent owners from hiding income, and forcing monopoly cable companies to end bundling practices that make it difficult for many fans to watch baseball.
At first blush, calling for the removal of the antitrust exemption seems more than a bit naive. Congress has considered such a step dozens of times since the exemption's 1922 creation but has responded only by making relatively minor amendments. Zimbalist, however, argues that fan, legislator and even player disgust over the current state of the game is growing so much so that it can't be assumed Congress won't act.
"Much of baseball's current structure wouldn't change at all if the exemption were lifted," he says. "There are legal tools available for baseball to still protect their interests. The point is that they would have to defend themselves [in court]. There would be judicial review. That review is absolutely critical."
Selig, predictably, is the target of much of Zimbalist's most heated criticism, and the comments will fuel renewed complaints of union loyalties. Zimbalist previously consulted the MLB Players Association and helped the Minneapolis Metropolitan Sports Facilities Corporation, operators of the Metrodome, fight off baseball's contraction plans. Those relationships last year sparked an angry and public exchange of op-ed pieces between Zimbalist and Rob Manfred, MLB vice president of labor relations.
"People will bring that up again, but I did not work with the players in this latest labor deal, and a major reason I didn't help the players is that there were a number of parts of their position I didn't agree with," Zimbalist says. "[Union general counsel] Gene Orza said there wasn't a competitive balance problem. There is a competitive balance problem."
Sadly, baseball's problems run much deeper than competitive balance. And that in turn makes one of Zimbalist's concluding comments "there is no reason for public policymakers to sit back and hope that baseball's barons will finally get it right" another important cautionary tale.

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