IN economist Andrew Zimbalist's eyes, major league baseball is batting a thousand when it comes to labor disputes: five collective bargaining negotiations since 1972 and five lockouts or strikes. It could soon be 6-for-6, he says, if a powerful faction of "hot-headed" team owners prevail over their cooler colleagues.
Unfortunately, says the Smith College economics professor, the former faction appears ascendant, to judge from their role in bringing down commissioner Fay Vincent, who resigned in September.
Professor Zimbalist recently wrote "Baseball and Billions" (Basic Books, $20), a look at the big business of baseball.
Zimbalist says the basic labor agreement runs through next year, but there's a provision that could allow owners bent on an "aggressive, confrontational" strategy to lock out the players next spring.
To force the issue, though, is ill-advised in Zimbalist's opinion: "It would be terrible PR for the owners at a time when they certainly don't need any more bad PR," he says. "They have behaved like buffoons for several months now ... and if they disrupt the season they would be flirting with a very angry Congress and fan base."
After nearly two decades with a free-agent system, which allows players to place themselves on the open market, Zimbalist says he believes that player salaries have finally "caught up to the level they ought to be. They have been approaching their appropriate level for a long time."
If money earned from baseball is not distributed to the players, Zimbalist points out, it's pocketed by owners who "have made a tradition of misleading the public and have been able to do so with impunity because their books are private," he says.
Access to such confidential financial data, he explains, occurs through court-case records, congressional investigations, and leaks to the press or other third parties.
He says he believes he has "cracked the nut," and pieced together baseball's economic puzzle. Zimbalist concludes that there are a lot of false claims of poverty among owners and that no team loses money consistently. "The teams that lose money are badly managed," he says. "It's not because they can't make money."