Vero Beach, Fla. — No doubt you have already read that major league baseball players have threatened to strike May 29 if they and the owners haven't hammered out a compensation agreement covering the shifting of free agents from one team to another.
"I can't believe that a strike will happen and I certainly hope it doesn't, because it is only one issue and shouldn't be that hard to resolve," explained Peter O'Malley, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I think the problem only seems complex because so many people, including many of the players, don't understand the owners' position."
"What the owners want is very simple, and I will give you can example of how it would work," O'Malley continued. "Let's say a team loses one of its free-agent superstars to another team -- a Pete Rose. The franchise signing Rose would then be allowed to protect any 17 players on its 25-man roster that it chooses. The 8 it doesn't protect would go into a pool, with the team losing rose taking one player as compensation."
O'Malley also said that if the free agent was not the caliber of Rose but merely an average player (this to be determined by his statistics), then the team losing him would receive only an amateur draft pick in return. This is the way the rule now reads. And if the free agent was a utility player, no compensation at all would be given.
The players, of course, have a different viewpoint. They fear that the owners' plan will reduce a free agent's bargaining power, since the team signing him would now also have to turn over a major league player to his old club.
This is actually the same issue that brought to two sides to the brink of a strike a year ago, and the agreement that averted a walkout then really just postponed a resolution of the question until this season. Now, according to that agreement, it is the owners' plan that goes into effect this year, with the players having the right to strike if they wish -- and they say they will unless some compromise can be worked out.
Asked where he thought baseball was going financially and if its yearly labor problems were driving fans away from the game, O'Malley replied:
"To this point I don't think the fan has been turned off or upset by baseball's internal struggles. They come out to the ballpark because we've got a great game; to enjoy a period of relaxation they can't get elsewhere; and because baseball is not part of the real world.
"The fans don't identify with the owners and their problems and I don't expect them to. They've got problems of their own. With them the game and the good time that goes with it is the thing, and I hope that never changes."
What primarily worries the Dodger owner is inflation and the rising costs of operating a major league franchise. For example, each player with a family who chooses to live outside Dodgertown this spring gets a weekly allowance of $433. 50. Meanwhile meal money for regular season road games has been increased to $ 37.50 a day. And many players' salaries are approaching $1 million a season.
"So far the Dodgers and most big league teams have been able to keep ticket prices at a low enough level so that a man can still bring his family to a ball game and not go broke," Peter said. "We've been able to do this because of the extra revenue we've gotten from radio and television contracts and, in some cases, pay TV. The fans have also helped the situation by coming out in record numbers."
"But my spring training costs alone for the past two years have increased at least one-third," he continued. "With salaries going up all the time, more and more of that cost is probably going to have to be passed along to the fans. I mean it's scary when you stop and think that several major league franchises have been sold in the past three years. I don't mind telling you that I was surprised when I read in the papers that Ruly Carpenter has the Phillies up for sale, because I never thought Carpenter woudl get out of baseball."
Two major league traveling secretaries I talked with, one in the American League and the other in the National, told me that most teams now spend at least
O'Malley, during our interview, also told me that if fuel and maintenance costs for the Dodger-owned jet airliner that transports players during the season continue to escalate, it is only a matter of time before his team will be flying commercial.
Asked for his opinion of Marvin Miller, for many years the chief negotiator for the Major League Players' Association in their financial dealings with the owners, the Dodger's owner said:
"Marvin Miller is a smart man. He does his homework. He knows exactly what to ask for each year in the way of new or increased benefits, and he is a very tough negotiator. I just hope he is as concerned and aware of what the decisions he makes today might have on baseball 10 years from now as I am. It's something I worry about all the time."
Although most players won't admit this publicly, few who understand the situation want to strike. Those making several hundred thousand dollars a year aren't exactly ecstatic about losing $2,000 and $3,000 a day in salary for, say, a month.
Others, with bonus clauses in their contracts based on games played, times at bat, or home runs, know they probably won't have time to get the figures they need in an abbreviated season. And those who would reach free-agent status at the end of the current season don't want that delayed past the start of next year.