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Issues behind baseball dispute

By Larry EldridgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1985


Even for a veteran umpire, it would be a tough call -- sorting out the rights and wrongs in the down-to-the-wire baseball dispute. How could the players and team owners have negotiated for almost nine months only to wind up racing the clock Tuesday in a desperate, day-long effort to avert the national pastime's second strike in four years? Just what are the real issues here?

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One side consists of young men making an average annual salary of $350,000 for playing a summer game.

The other side is made up of multimillionaires, who are joined by battalions of tax lawyers and accountants. There are no clear ``villains.''

According to most recent polls, the general public perceives the players as the ones wearing the black hats this time around. It's difficult, after all, for the man-in-the-street to understand why such highly paid workers would walk off their jobs. How can they be dissatisfied with such a good deal? How much more do they want?

It's human nature to think this way, of course, and the owners are only too happy to help foster such ideas. In the contract negotiations, which began last November and were still going on at press time Tuesday with the Aug. 6 strike deadline upon us, management repeatedly emphasized what it called the game's ``dire financial straits.'' Naturally the owners laid most of the blame for this situation on the rapid escalation of player salaries over the past decade.

But few people at this point seriously believe the owners' perennial lament that they are losing money -- especially when every time a franchise goes up for sale, prospective buyers fall all over themselves for the privilege of shelling out $40 million or $50 million to acquire such a supposedly unattractive investment. Obviously the huge ``losses'' we keep hearing about exist only in the fertile imaginations of the tax lawyers and accountants.

And in any case, are today's players really overpaid? All you have to do is look at the revenue their efforts generate and the question answers itself. The players, after all, are the ones who create this revenue. Nobody has bought a ticket yet to watch George Steinbrenner building his ships or Ted Turner trying to buy CBS. So why shouldn't the people who bring the money in get the lion's share of the profits?

They should, of course, and throughout the rest of the entertainment industry they do. You don't see Bruce Springsteen turning over the fruits of his efforts to the promoters -- and ditto for Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, or any top star of the stage, screen, or TV. In fact by these standards, even the highest baseball salaries look like coolie wages. And in case anyone hasn't noticed, baseball is part of the entertainment business. So what is all the fuss about?

The owners, though, cherish memories of a happier (for them) time when ballplayers didn't have the same sort of leverage their fellow entertainers in other fields did. Free agency changed all that about a decade ago, however, and since then player salaries have been determined on the open market.

The current dispute is not technically about any of this. But more and more as the deadline approached, it became apparent that despite all the well-publicized arguments about whether baseball was making or losing money and the question of how much the owners should contribute to the players' pension fund, the real issue -- just as it was the last time -- is management's attempt to limit the effect free agency can have on the game's salary structure.