BASEBALL is in trouble. The major leagues themselves could be teetering on the brink of collapse in the next few years. Fans of the national pastime are understandably worried.
But the best thing we can do is celebrate and help Major League Baseball (MLB) over the edge. I made the mistake of saying something like this just before opening day in front of my nine-year-old son, who burst into tears. He thought I meant baseball should go down the tubes. Quite the contrary; professional baseball should be liberated from MLB's current monopoly.
Many fans like to recall a great hitting performance, or read about a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. Fewer care to learn the details of how Barry Bonds' salary is structured. Fewer still can or would want to follow the broadcast and payroll economics of a professional team.
Fans nevertheless sense that what's wrong with the game has something to do with money: with the price of hot dogs and peanuts at the ballpark; with the astonishingly high salaries; with the decreasing number of games on network television. This is not a happy sequence of thoughts, especially for those who, like me, sided with the players over the reserve rule and free agency.
It was so much easier to be on the side of the angels in years past. The reserve rule was an unjust labor contract. It was fun to watch owners thunder about Armageddon while writing unprecedented checks to savvy stars like Reggie Jackson, Oscar Gamble, Dave Winfield. Even the big salaries were defensible: When Geraldo Rivera, Vanna White, and corporate lawyers are brought down to $50,000 a year, so should a long reliever with an ERA over 4.00.
But Bobby Bonilla's $29 million last year and Barry Bonds' $42 million have been unsettling. And why should baseball's corporate leadership have so much power that it could - at the behest of the New York Mets - veto a franchise coming to my county on Long Island, 35 miles from Shea Stadium?
Fortunately, the solution to baseball's troubles is percolating in Congress. On the heels of the major leagues' extremely limited, highly publicized, high-rolling expansion, and the airing of dirty laundry occasioned by the firing of Commissioner Fay Vincent, a growing number of senators and representatives are talking about lifting baseball's antitrust exemption. Even the United States Supreme Court, when it last upheld the waiver, invited the legislative branch to recognize baseball's status as interst ate commerce and therefore subject to rules about fair trade and monopolistic behavior. Congress could do no better than in one swing of the legislative bat to nullify the exemption (the only one in pro sports) and break MLB's control over the baseball business.
Such a move would bring dramatic changes. The only reason there are 28 major league teams now is that the baseball cartel has restricted their number (otherwise known as controlling the supply). Demand, interestingly, has soared; minor-league attendance alone has risen two and a half times since 1975.
So franchises would bloom wherever local businesses, municipalities, and fans wanted to put up the money to have one. Leagues would multiply. No one would have to ante up $95 million for the privilege of joining an existing league's cellar (which is what the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins had to do) because no one league would have enough power to extract that price. Currently, MLB exercises its right of approval over potential baseball owners, markets, stadium contracts, even the structure of owne rship.
There are no municipally owned baseball franchises only because owners and the commissioner have refused to consider them. New big-league owners have had to be fantastically wealthy. In a post-MLB world, baseball ownership would be far more open to genuine entrepreneurs, be they African-American, Hispanic, women, or maybe even players themselves.
Quite naturally, fans will wonder about the quality of the players on these new teams. Take the ratio of the general population to big-league ballplayers around the turn of the century - the era of John McGraw, Honus Wagner, and Christy Matthewson - and apply it to today's population. This would yield enough ballplayers to stock between 40 and 74 teams. Five years ago sabermetrician Bill James estimated that the US could support 60 major-league teams, even without considering the ballplayers throughout t he Caribbean and Latin America. If there were more room at the top of the baseball profession, we might even find more young people trying to make a living in the game.
ONCE the minor leagues - where the reserve rule still reigns, salaries remain very low, and rosters are at the mercy of the parent club's needs - were freed from the shackles of MLB, the game would become even more attractive to younger players. Fans would also like to root for a team that, without major-league interference, would have a chance of winning.
It should be clear by now that the stratospheric salaries of recent years simply couldn't be supported by baseball in an era of real free enterprise. Without the protection of a cartel, no team could corner enough of the market to be able to afford such outlandish sums. Only national television markets and networks, and a central source of supply, could produce the $100-million contracts that have driven the salary inflation of recent years. Instead, local and regional television contracts would prolifer ate. Ballplayers would probably still be well paid, but overall they would become a lot more like ordinary folks with a skill and talent.
And if the lure of hitting the fairy-tale jackpot and the pressure on athletes to keep the big money flowing disappear, athletes might be less likely to try to better their performance or escape from the strain by drinking or using other drugs.
There would be a downside to the new era. Some fans would agonize over the changes in long-cherished teams and leagues. My hunch is, though, that after the first few years of instability and even chaos, most of us would be happier. There would be more baseball teams and games; more televised baseball; lower player salaries; and professional baseball would be closer - in many senses - to where most Americans live.
Some traditions would take a beating, but others would make a comeback. George Steinbrenner might sell the Yankees and Washington D.C. might get its teams back. Maybe women's professional baseball would return. And who knows, someone might even schedule day baseball games - think of it, a daytime World Series! - again.
If the Clintons can go after health care reform, and members of Congress who want to be reelected can consider new taxes, then we fans ought to be able to muster the gumption to challenge Major League Baseball. After all, Arkansas doesn't have a big-league team. Neither, Senator Dole, does Kansas. How about Wichita, say, or Topeka?