The Last Home Run Of the 1994 Season? Some Analysts Say No

THE guns of August are silent.

Home-run hitters Ken Griffey Jr. of Seattle and Matt Williams of San Francisco were chasing Roger Maris's fabled record of 61 homers in a single season. San Diego's Tony Gwynn's .394 batting average had baseball fans hoping he would have the first .400-plus season since Ted Williams in 1941.

That was before the strike. With team owners demanding a cap on baseball salaries, players walked off the job Friday, with almost a third of the season left to go.

Federal-government mediators began talking to each side separately over the weekend, but the owner-player rift remains wide. Analysts say the strike could be a long one unless owners drop their demand for a cap on player salaries.

Owners have held firm so far, but such a move could come, says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. He says it is really just four to six teams that are losing money (owners say the figure is 12 to 14).

Of the 28 Major League teams, a three-fourths majority of 21 must approve a new collective-bargaining agreement with players to replace the old agreement that expired last year. Mr. Zimbalist says he sees 13 to 15 teams as ``consistently, eminently profitable'' - a potential coalition that could tire of urging players to limit their collective pay to 50 percent of baseball's almost $2 billion revenue stream.

The players struck now because they worried owners would impose a salary cap unilaterally after the season ended. Players could have staged an early-season walkout, but that lacks the clout of the current strike at the peak of the season.

If owners break ranks and scuttle the salary-cap push, a deal could potentially be struck quickly with players to get the season started again, says James Dworkin, a labor expert at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Owners could then work among themselves to help small-city teams that are in financial trouble. A prominent option is greater sharing of revenues among teams, such as exists in football and basketball. But owners of revenue-rich clubs in big media markets such as New York are reluctant to give up income. They say this should only happen in conjunction with a salary cap to contain player salaries, which have soared to an average of $1.2 million.

Currently, though teams pool all national broadcast revenue, only a small proportion of local broadcast and ticket revenue is shared, causing wide disparity in team incomes. For example, the National League shares less than 4 percent of gate revenue, while the American League teams share 20 percent. ``This is a dispute of the owners' making and it will not end until the owners decide to end it,'' says Donald Fehr, who heads the players' union.

Accounting gimmicks or poor management may be behind some teams' claims of distress. But five teams with genuine financial woes are Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle, a recent issue of Financial World says. ``These teams should be allowed to move to cities that are swelling with support, such as St. Petersburg, Fla.,'' the magazine argues.

Another proven way to boost revenues that is being considered in Seattle is to build new stadiums that expand revenue from luxury boxes, advertising opportunities, and concessions.

While profits are at stake, championships may not be. Zimbalist says statistical evidence shows only a slight advantage that teams with high payrolls have over those with less to spend on salaries. This year, the low-paid Montreal Expos has the best record in baseball, while the high-paid Toronto Blue Jays has lost more often than it has won.

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