The end of the baseball strike unquestionably signals the beginning of a troubled period for the game that likes to call itself the national pastime.
The immediate concern, of course, is to salvage as much as possible from the badly disrupted 1981 season. The big problem in the long run, though, is to restore the game's tarnished image and woo back millions of disenchanted fans. No one thinks that will be easy.
Settlement of the seven-week strike, easily the longest and most bitter walkout in professional sports history, occurred early last Friday, but details of how the season is to continue are still being worked out. Play will begin with the All-Star Game in Cleveland Sunday (Aug. 9), followed by resumption of championship action the next day, but owners are still debating whether to pick up the schedule in progress or take the radical step of declaring this the second half of a split season.
The latter idea smacks of bush league gimmickry, of course, but the feeling among those proposing it is that desperate times call for desperate measures -- and these do indeed appear to be desperate times for baseball. As the strike dragged on, it became more and more apparent that a large segment of the public was turning apathetic. And with autumn just around the corner, it would be difficult for any but the contending teams to drum up much business unless they can tell their fans it's a whole new season.
Manager Dallas Green of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies, while conceding that he had reservations about a split season, summed up the problems that may well convince the owners to go in this direction.
"Let's face it -- we're running into football and the kids are getting ready to go back to school," he told reporters. "We've messed up their summer long enough. We have to try to think about Joe Fan."
One of the big objections to a split season is that things might have been played differently in June if teams had known they were in the stretch drive. It would also add another set of playoffs (the first and second half winners in each division would meet in a playoff of unspecified length, and if one team won both halves, it would play the second place team with the higher percentage).
This might be attractive for TV, but it would lengthen the season further into those cold October nights.Worse, thought, it would cheapen post-season play the way hockey and basketball have done with their ridiculous systems in which almost everybody qualifies and the playoffs drag on forever. And the danger would be that once the owners and TV types get a tast of such a system, even on an emergency basis, there would be an attempt to make it permament.
The owners are scheduled to meet in Chicago Tuesday to discuss the matter, with indications that the American League favors a split season while the National League is divided.
Whatever the decision, baseball fans can at last stop talking about Marvin Miller, Ray Grebey, free agent compensation, etc., and take up where they left off on June 12. When will Pete Rose break Stan Musial's National League hit record? Can Gaylord Perry get his 300th victory? Is Fernando Valenzuela for real? And who will win the pennant races -- whatever form they take?
There's no doubt, either, that millions of fans are ready to forget the last seven weeks and get right back into the game. But this is the hard core of support on which any major sport can always rely. What baseball has to worry about is the much larger number of more moderate fans -- many of whom seem disinclined to continue supporting a game whose owners and players show such disregard for the public.
Baseball's popularity, after all, has always depended largely on illusions. The public wants to at least pretend to believe that the athletes who represent their city have a special bond with that particular team and its fans -- and vice versa. It has even been willing to wink at all the recent evidence to the contrary such as free agency, union-management squabbles, etc. But this time the owners and players have made it truly impossible for anyone to engage in such mental gymnastics. And the fans obviously resent the way their house of cards has been shattered.
Why were both sides willing to risk this ire? Obviously because the issue of free agent compensation was that important.
EVer since 1976 when the players won the right to free agency in the courts, the only compensation going to a team losing a player this way was an amateur draft choice. The owners have never been happy with this setup, and have constantly pressed for compensation in the form of a professional player off the roster of the team signing the free agent. But the players always balked at this, claiming that such a system would discourage teams from pursuing free agents, thus reducing their bargaining power.
The compromise reached to settle the strike sets up a pool system by which a team losing a free agent is compensated with a professional player, but the team signing him is not specifically penalized. This obviously isn't what the owners had in mind, so in that sense they lost out, but on the other hand it is more than they had before.
The way the battle lines were drawn, in fact, the owners were the only ones who could win anything in this dispute -- and the only question all along was how much they would get.
"We knew coming into the strike it was take-away time as far as compensation was concerned. . ." said Philadelphia Phillies player representative Bob Boone. "We are worse off now than when we started, but at least the ordeal is over."
George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds echoed these sentiments.
"No matter how you look at it. . . we lost some ground," he said. "The owners get some of the leverage back that they had before 1976."
It doesn't really seem that the system agreed upon will do much to inhibit the bidding for free agents, though, so perhaps the real "victory" for the owners was simply the establishment of the principle that compensation is due in such cases. And this, of course, is the fear of the players -- that this year's agreement is just the opening wedge for the owners' eventual goal of direct, team-to-team compensation.
But the current system will remain in force through 1984, by which time a lot of things could be diffe rent.