NEW YORK — The baseball season started getting ugly if it wasn't already about a week ago.
Not quite halfway through the season, the once-mighty Cleveland Indians threw in the towel by trading their best pitcher, Bartolo Colon, while they were within striking distance of first place in the American League central division. General manager Mark Shapiro justified the move as necessary to "rebuild," yet Colon was in the prime of his career and on the brink of becoming one of baseball's rarest commodities: a dominant pitcher. He's the kind of player you don't trade.
Then there was troubling news in New York. The Yankees picked up yet another excellent player, Raul Mondesi, to bolster their outfield, putting their payroll well over $130 million. That's great news for Yankees fans, who want another World Series appearance, but for the rest of baseball it's discouraging. The Yankees are buying championships, and no one has figured out a way to stop them (other than, perhaps, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks).
Finally, there was July 2, a day that should live in baseball infamy. There were 62 major-league home runs hit on that day, the most in history. Now I love the long ball, but this is getting ridiculous. I'm starting to think the whole league is on steroids. When I watch a game and a player comes to bat, the first thing I think is, "Is this guy juiced?"
Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated recently asked the once-lovable Sammy Sosa to volunteer for a drug test. What did Sosa do? He went into what some would call a " 'roids rage," insulting Reilly as the veins bulged out of his neck.
Sound weird yet? There's a link among all these issues. Those around baseball, ranging from conspiracy theorists to the level-headed, are clamoring about a train wreck that is about to happen. The two engines hurtling toward each other are the players' union and the owners. It's a game of chicken: Will the players strike?
"I think we're at a real dangerous point," Cleveland player representative Paul Shuey recently told reporters. "Do we set a strike date?... If the owners want to implement their own changes after this season, what other recourse do we have?"
Another baseball insider, from the owners' side, said the situation looked bleak, although he did say it has "improved somewhat from a few months ago."
The executive board of the players' association is scheduled to meet in Chicago Monday, and it may set a strike date not necessarily because it intends to strike on that day, but because it is eager to begin negotiations on a labor agreement while the season is still going and it still has leverage. Baseball has been operating without an agreement since Nov. 7.
The conflicts between players and owners are numerous and run deep. The owners have held the upper hand since 1922, when a Supreme Court ruling gave them an antitrust exemption. But the players have chipped away at that pillar, notably in 1972 when Curt Flood tried unsuccessfully to become the first free agent.
The most recent strike, in 1994, lasted 232 days and wiped out postseason play that year. The owners lost about $670 million and the players about $350 million.
The key actors Donald Fehr of the players' association and baseball commissioner Bud Selig have no love for each other, and both have too many skeletons in the closet to negotiate in good faith. (Is it only a matter of time before President Bush orders one of them to step down?)
"There is some sense at Selig's office that they've been losing up to now, and they want to win something," says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who follows baseball economics. "Selig is hell-bent on winning this." Zimbalist puts the odds of a strike at slightly less than 50-50.
The strike scare helps explain why the Indians would trade Colon so early in the season. If they wait any longer, there may be no team in need of a late-season boost to their pitching staff because there may be no late season at all.
The differences between owners and players are myriad.
First is spending. The owners want to bring down salaries and create more parity among teams. They want more sharing between teams of local revenue (for things like merchandise and TV rights), possibly up to a level of 50 percent. Also, they want to implement a competitive-balance tax, which would have an effect similar to the salary cap in football. Ideas have been floated to put a 50 percent tax on payrolls over $98 million.
The players oppose these moves, at least at the aforementioned rates, because they think it will lower average salaries.
There's also the issue of reforming the draft, which has become more about money than about the equal distribution of talent. As it is now, only a few clubs have the cash to sign top talent.
And both sides have to acknowledge that there's a problem with steroids. The owners seem to want drug testing, but the players are torn. The question is, how far do you go? The players are concerned, legitimately, about privacy issues. Would baseball test only for performance-enhancing drugs, or so-called recreational drugs as well? Would the tests be random? Would they include the off-season?
"They're going to have to implement some kind of testing, and they're going to have to do it soon," says Eldon Ham, a sports attorney in Chicago.
"People are starting to doubt if these numbers we see on the scoreboard are real. Credibility is suffering."