Tell Baseball Owners: Let My Players Go!

The major league's exemption from antitrust laws is the root of the game's troubles. Congress could fix things.

THIS week baseball fans should have been savoring the special anticipation between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs. But now, for the first time in 90 years, instead of making plans to follow the fall classic, we're already deep into a winter of discontent.

Unknown to most fans, however, the most promising development in baseball since Ken Griffey Jr. began hitting home runs has been unfolding in the United States House and Senate.

There, for the first time since the Supreme Court granted baseball an exemption from antitrust laws in 1922, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill restricting Major League Baseball's immunity to the laws governing interstate commerce. Since 1922, the court has both affirmed and ridiculed the exemption. The justices called the exemption ``unreasonable, illogical, and inconsistent'' in 1957. But in 1972 they said it was ``an aberration'' and explicitly invited Congress to lift it.

Congress hasn't gone nearly far enough. It's going to adjourn before the bill can come to a final vote. And the Judiciary Committee bill only affects the portion of the exemption relating to labor disputes.

But - and this is a huge ``but'' - at long last Congress has begun to shake off the grip of the baseball owners. Legal revolutions rarely happen overnight. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, who has sponsored legislation in the past, is retiring, but others will pick up the mantle.

Unfortunately, if understandably, most fans could not care less about this stuff. Why bother? they grumble. ``We want the World Series,'' a friend told me, ``not a hearing on C-Span. What does all this have to do with baseball?''

For one thing, nearly everything fans dislike about baseball can be traced to the antitrust exemption - including why there are no ballgames right now.

Take salaries. You think players with contracts guaranteeing them $4 million per year act like spoiled children? The reason players make so much money is that Major League Baseball has a legal monopoly over the professional sport. How? Answer: Baseball's antitrust exemption.

To sell advertising to hundreds of millions of viewers, television networks have to deal with the only supplier of professional games, Major League Baseball. They pay exorbitantly for the privilege, and major league clubs get most of their expenses paid before they sell a single ticket. That's how they can afford to pay fortunes to the ballplayers.

To convince the owners to grant them big-league franchises, the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins each had to ante up a $95-million entry fee to the major leagues. How could the majors get away with this? The antitrust exemption makes them the only game in town.

Suppose you'd like a minor league team. You've found a Double-A club that wants to move. You're prepared to build a small stadium that you'll share with the local college. Citizens are giddy; the newspaper runs a contest to pick a new name for the team.

There's just one hitch. A major league club plays 50 miles away and doesn't like the competition! Acting Commissioner Bud Selig tells you no soap. You have no recourse. Why? The antitrust exemption gives Major League Baseball authority over location of all professional franchises. (This actually happened in Suffolk County, Long Island. The New York Mets vetoed the plan.)

What would happen if the exemption were lifted? Major League Baseball would crumble - the organization, not the game. There's a world of difference.

Cities would start their own teams and bid for players. New leagues would spring up everywhere. Since no post-exemption league could count on a $100-million TV contract, it would make more sense to compete regionally. Team payrolls would shrink drastically.

Minor leagues would no longer be bound to the major league ``show.'' They could bargain with any town and with any players they wanted to win their own championship. Baseball would have to return to the basic economic principle that the best way to make money is to win ballgames and draw fans.

Major League Baseball now prohibits anything other than private ownership of a club, with most control in the hands of one person (or corporation). Without the exemption, players could start their own league (as they did in 1890), and any owner could decide to sell stock publicly in a baseball club.

Tell me you wouldn't like to own a few shares of your favorite club. Just imagine the elections to the board of directors. These suggestions only begin to explore what baseball could become if Congress does the right thing next year.

But baseball fans can act now. If it's really ``the national pastime,'' then we have responsibility to do something. Get those phones and word processors going, fellow fans, and contact Congress. We have nothing to lose but our illusion that someone else is going to take care of things for us. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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