US Fans Tell The Baseball Leagues: One Strike and You'r-r-re Out

SO which will it be, America? The ``boys of summer'' (baseball) or the boys from Brazil (soccer)?

In a popularity shootout, the two sports went head-to-head this week as baseball held its midseason All-Star Game while the World Cup playoffs were heading to a climax in stadiums across the United States. (The National League won the All-Star game 8-7.)

But even as America's ``national pastime'' vies for attention with the world's most impassioned sporting event, baseball is also competing with itself: When fans gathered in Pittsburgh for the three-day festivities surrounding Tuesday's All-Star game, the players union was meeting on whether to authorize a strike. (Midseason roundup, Page 14.)

Owners and players can't agree on how to divide the sport's $1.7 billion in estimated revenues. Analysts predict a walkout later in the season, when players can maximize owners' television losses while minimizing their own forgone paychecks. But despite this ``labor'' dispute, the baseball season has so far been unusually engaging for fans, a hitter's paradise with close pennant races:

* Three sluggers are chasing the game's record for home runs in a single season (61) set by Roger Maris in 1961. Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr., San Francisco's Matt Williams, and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox are all close to Mr. Maris's 1961 pace.

* Minnesota's Chuck Knoblauch is on track to bust Earl Webb's record of 67 doubles, set more than half a century ago. Mr. Thomas and San Diego's Tony Gwynn are within striking distance of a .400 batting average - a barrier not breached since 1941, when Ted Williams did it.

* This is the first season with the sport reorganized into three divisions rather than two in both the American and National Leagues. An expanded structure for postseason play will include the second-place team in each league filling a fourth playoff slot as a wild card.

* The new structure also means losing teams have a shot at the World Series. In the American League West division all teams are contenders, even though none is having a winning season so far; half the game's 28 teams either lead their division or are within five games of the top.

A strike would cut all these possibilities short. It also would open the door wide for competing sports, even the hitherto alien game known overseas as football, to capture the public imagination. Mike Snodgrass, administrator of the Washington State Youth Soccer Association, says the excitement surrounding the World Cup is likely to result in a 10-percent rise in youth soccer enrollment this fall. Already the sport has been attracting 2 to 5 percent of American children each year since 1989, he says, 90,000 in Washington State.

In Pittsburgh, soccer remains ``the foster child of sports,'' lacking the appeal of home-grown American games, says Steve Beckmann, owner of Pittsburgh Soccer & Sports. But he notes that more US children already play soccer than football and baseball combined, though they often turn to other sports in high school. Even that could change as colleges continue adding the sport, and a new professional league is slated to begin in the US next year.

Many Americans are already turned off by baseball's high salaries, which are averaging $1.2 million per player this year. But the game's roots run deep in the nation.

``I don't think the American people will abandon the game,'' says Gary Roberts, a Tulane Univserity expert on sports law. ``The American public might hate the owners and might hate the players, but they love the game.''

Indeed, ballpark attendance has grown steadily throughout two decades of tense labor relations, with player strikes or owner lockouts in 1972, 1976, 1981, 1985, and 1990. This fall, moreover, interest in baseball will be boosted by public television's airing of an 18-hour, nine-part documentary by Ken Burns, maker of an acclaimed film series on the Civil War.

Owners want a salary cap that would restrict soaring payroll costs to 50 percent of the industry revenues. US basketball and football leagues have such caps, though players in those sports want to break out from them.

The baseball players are expected to make a counterproposal by Monday. After being treated as the property of a single team for most of the century, unable to put their services out for bid, players have won a string of victories over owners in recent decades. Their share of industry revenues is currently 56 percent.

To have any chance at winning salary caps, owners must agree to open their closely held accounting books, says James Dworkin, a Purdue University professor of organizational behavior. Outside experts question how bad the financial situation is. Owners could sweeten their offer by boosting players' overall percentage of revenues and allowing players to market themselves as ``free agents'' earlier in their careers, he adds. In a deal linked to the salary cap proposal, owners have agreed to share more of local broadcast revenues among themselves so that small cities can field teams that are paid close to what big-city teams can afford.

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