If players strike, will fans walk out?

The Major League Baseball Players' Association and the men they work for (the owners) are as close to a strike today as mustard is to a hot dog. The stumbling block, as it has been all through the negotiations between the two sides, is a demand by the owners that would essentially water down the current free-agent system, which allows certain players to sell their services to the highest bidder. The deadline set by the players in spring training is almost here now, however, and unless negotiators can hammer out a last-second agreement in New York, the walkout is scheduled to begin at Thursday midnight.

This labor-management strife illustrates once again that the national pastime -- for decades played by larger-than-life heroes in a romantic atmosphere -- now is a business peopled by entrepreneurs and often-wealthy employees. It is a business grappling with issues that confront many other businesses -- salaries, pensions, employee rights. But, in the case of baseball, the product is sporting entertainment.

Labor-management tension has escalated in recent years. Lawyers negotiate players' contracts; various issues are brought to court. Umpires have struck twice in two years -- briefly each time; and in 1972 the players struck for the first time in baseball history -- for 13 days.

Through it all, baseball fans have kept thronging back to the ballparks. But some speculate that this time it could be different. A prolonged strike in this age of tremendous competition for the entertainment dollar, it is reasoned, would run the risk of killing the fans' interest, and it might be years before fans and their money flowed back.

Each side sees the other as the villain in this little drama. Management representative Ray Grebey loves to cite the average salary of more than $150,000 per year, plus generous pension benefits, and to wonder out loud how much more the players can possibly want. The players, however, say today's salaries only represent their fair share of the game's record-breaking revenues, and that any weakening of the free-agent system would drastically reduce their bargaining power. They accuse the owners of trying to "turn back the clock" and of virtually forcing a strike by adhering to demands they know the players cannot accept.

Indeed, the owners seem much more determined than they have been in past negotiations, and it is clear they have anticipated and prepared for a strike. There are reports they have established a strike fund of $3.5 million, raised last year when they assessed themselves 2 percent of gate receipts. There also is speculation that they have taken out special strike insurance with Lloyd's of London.

As for the players, they voted 767-to-1 in March to support a strike. But several players (who were willing that I use their words but not their names) claim the sentiment is nowhere near that one-sided.

"You know as well as I do that there is a lot of peer pressure in baseball to go along with the crowd," one told me. "Actually, I've never liked the idea of a strike, and I'm not alone. I don't think it's necessary.

"But when it became obvious to me that two-thirds of the players on my team wanted to go along, there was no way I wasn't going to vote with them," he continued. "If it was a secret ballot, I might have reacted differently. But when it's a show of hands in front of everybody, you go along or accept the fact that you're going to get ridden by certain of your teammates for the rest of the season. To me, it wasn't worth it, especially when I knew I couldn't win anyway."

Reports from various teams indicate similar dissent among some players as the prospect of trying to maintain well-to-do lifestyles without paychecks becomes imminent. So the question of how much solidarity the union can muster is not easily answered.

Presumably, if a walkout is settled relatively quickly, the pennant races would resume at that point and missed games would not be made up (that is what happened in '72).

But what if there is a prolonged strike -- perhaps even one that wipes out the entire season? Is there a danger, then, that the public will discover it can do without baseball? More than one major newspaper has failed to get off the floor after being hit with a prolonged strike, and walkouts over the years have cost the automobile industry millions of dollars.

The owners' compensation demand calls for any team signing a so-called "premium" free agent (one selected by seven or more clubs in the draft) to compensate the player's old club with a player from its own 40-man roster. That is, after it has named 15 players that it wants to protect.

The present compensation consists only of a future draft pick. What the owners are hoping is that by making the club signing a free agent give up talent of proven value instead, they can curb some of the wild bidding of recent years.

Not only do the players balk at this idea, but they also have some demands of their own. They want a reduction in the number of years it takes to become a free agent (from six years to four or less), and they insist that any player who has spent one year in the big leagues should be able to take his salary disputes to arbitration.

Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players' Association and a former assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers of America, is a tough negotiator who, in the past 14 years, has managed to get ballplayers' salaries increased by a whopping 462 percent. Records show that, during that same period , salaries of US manufacturing workers have increased approximately 150 percent.

Miller's argument is that the owners can afford to pay because their game has never been in better financial shape. Among his bargaining weapons is the fact that attendance records have been set in each of the past four years. (Last season's attendance, generated by 26 teams, was 43,550,398.)

Miller also claims that television revenues to baseball owners are approaching $185 million a year, with no signs of slowing down. Sure, salaries are high, he says, but there is no reason why they shouldn't be.

This spring Miller told Sports Illustrated:

"One owner said to me that the negotiations should go well because the players don't need anything and the owners need compensation. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'You know. They've got to have a victory.' . . . They've talked themselves into the idea that we've kicked them around.

". . . Part of the problem is me. They want a victory not over the players, but over Miller. I'm symbolic."

Any time you're dealing with things like salary, expenses, depreciation, etc. , one can make figures jump through a hoop as surely as any circus-trained fox terrier.

The owners and the Players' Association both have been guilty of this, and today's public, especially since Watergate and so many congressional investigations, is not nearly as naive as it used to be.

Since major league baseball will not open its books, there is no sure way to know about its profits, losses, and financial structure. On the other hand, that $150,000 average salary puts the players in the top 1 percent of all American workers. It seems obvious that both sides have a lot to gain by settling their differences quickly -- and a great deal to lose in any prolonged strike.

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