A summer of discontent, made worse by baseball

Two months after Pearl Harbor and America's entrance into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a letter to the commissioner of Major League Baseball, asking that the games go on. For a nation in crisis, the president wrote, Americans "ought to have a chance ... for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

Today, with the country caught between concerns about national security and a stock-market meltdown, the president might rather avert Americans' eyes from the national pastime than extol it.

Long a reflection of the nation's morals and mien, Major League Baseball now presents, if anything, an amplification of the American uncertainty. All-Star games are unfinished. Steroids, some players say, are as common as peanuts and Cracker Jack. Several teams are in imminent danger of contraction or bankruptcy, and a strike looms amid allegations of improper accounting.

The pronouncements are apocalyptic. Indeed, to hear Commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig talk about it, his sport is one step from sackcloth and ashes: As many as eight teams could go under in the next year, and just recently, one team nearly failed to meet its payroll, he said.

The truth, however, is likely more subtle. Some economists side with the owners' dire assessments. Most don't. With a few minor adjustments, baseball is relatively healthy, they say. Yet all agree that underlying – and perhaps driving – the upheaval of recent weeks and months is a primal battle for control.

It is a sign of how powerful the players' union has become since it won free agency nearly three decades ago – and how desperately owners want to turn the tide. "The owners just never seem to win," says Jules Tygiel, author of "Past Time, Baseball as History."

For most of Major League Baseball's more than 100-year history, the opposite was true – major league ballplayers were basically indentured servants in stirrups.

But the momentum shifted after the advent of free agency – an event that galvanized the union and deepened the antipathy between players and owners. Since 1969, nine baseball seasons have been interrupted by strikes, yet major league owners have won little.

"It went from being all owners to all players," says Charles Link, an economist at the University of Delaware. "There's got to be a happy medium."

For now, there is no drug testing, no salary cap, no significant revenue sharing to help teams in smaller cities compete. The result, say critics, is a dysfunctional system that has enshrined the individual over the good of the game.

Some point to the All-Star game, where athletes ask not to be played for more than an inning or two, as a symptom. Others say selfishness has made the league itself a farce. Without a salary cap, only a handful of teams have the money to buy the best players and win championships. The rest either have to spend themselves into oblivion to keep up, or grow roots at the bottom of the standings.

In testimony before Congress late last year, Mr. Selig said two-thirds of the major-league clubs had debts of at least $72 million last season, and 21 of 30 teams lost money. Leaguewide, teams lost $232 million.

In turn, owners' solutions have been increasingly brash. When Selig suggested last week that two teams might not make it through the season – a position he has since tempered – he said he might just let them fail. In addition, owners last year voted to contract two teams. An arbitrator will decide by Aug. 1 whether the league has that right.

To many, though, such moves smack of pure posturing. Selig was a car salesman before becoming a baseball owner; he's been selling his doomsday scenario for years. "He's trying to use all sorts of bargaining chips," says baseball economist Andrew Zimbalist.

Moreover, the numbers just don't add up, he and others say. The price of clubs continues to appreciate, and an analysis by Forbes magazine released in April found that two-thirds of the teams in the league turned a profit last year. The magazine counted various revenues that Major League Baseball did not.

In an odd way, some analysts say, it's an echo of the troubles surrounding Enron and WorldCom – but in reverse. As one former Toronto Blue Jays executive famously quipped: "I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss, and I can get every national accounting firm to agree with me."

True or not, the constant tales of woe from Major League Baseball are starting to have an effect. Once synonymous with the idealism and promise that America embodied – and that President Roosevelt wanted in time of war – baseball is gradually losing its sense of worth.

"Major League Baseball is the only organization that can consistently badmouth its own product and then expect people to pay for it," says Eric Enders, a baseball historian in Cooperstown, N.Y. "If ... the game is not worth celebrating or even attending, then why should we care?"

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