It is often said that nothing can kill baseball. Not greedy owners. Not spoiled players. Not cataclysmic world events.
It is, after all, America's game.
Baseball's durability, however, may be tested mightily in the coming days, as the Major League Players' Association contemplates setting a strike date.
If players and owners can't come to an agreement on several sticky issues, and work stops for the ninth time in the last 30 years, baseball could suffer far more this time around than it has in recent labor disputes.
"It would be bad news," says Charles Korr, a history professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who has just published a book titled "The End of Baseball As We Knew It." "It would be a lot harder for the game to regain its popular base this time around. The memory of 1994 is just too strong in people's minds."
In 1994, players struck for 232 days, causing the first cancellation of a World Series since 1904. A strike this year would likely have the same effect: no postseason.
Already fans are bracing for another kick in the face. "If baseball strikes again, I say that they might as well fold," says Jeff Savage, a 14-year-old from Vermont who started an online petition urging the players and owners to avoid a strike. "I personally would come back, seeing how baseball is the love of my life and I couldn't live without it. But, there are very many [fans] who would just not have anything to do with it."
Jim Gates, the library director at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., says he's concerned, but urges fans to keep their perspective. He points out that the sport's labor woes date back to the 1880s. "Baseball is so intertwined with our culture that you cannot separate the two," he says. "If there are labor problems in baseball, it's indicative of something going on in our culture as well," he adds, referring to the weakened economy.
While there is reason to think that another strike could be more devastating this time around, there is also reason for optimism as the players and owners continue negotiations. This was underscored Monday, when the players' union decided to delay setting a strike date at least until Friday and to continue negotiating in good faith. Union representative Donald Fehr said he was "fairly confident" a deal could be reached.
The positions of the two sides on the major issues are not as far apart as they were in 1994, and the owners, so far, don't seem intent on busting the union as they once were. Bargaining sessions have been ongoing, and some peripheral issues, such as drug testing and a new draft system, seem close to resolution.
The most significant disagreements are rooted in the desire of the owners to lower team payrolls and distribute wealth among the 30 teams in Major League Baseball. The average player salary has soared to $2.38 million, and the New York Yankees boast a payroll of $135 million about $100 million more than that of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The owners have held the upper hand in baseball labor issues since 1922, when a Supreme Court ruling gave them an antitrust exemption. But the players have gradually gained ground since then, most notably with free agency in the early '70s.
One advantage the players have now is unity. It is hard to imagine any player breaking ranks with the union. And, Major League ballplayers are notoriously competitive, meaning that it would be extremely dangerous for the owners to directly confront them. The owners, on the other hand, are divided between the small- and big-market teams, whose interests are vastly different.
The commissioner's office claims that that ballooning salaries and sagging attendance down more than 5 percent this year are causing them to collectively lose money. According to figures presented to Congress, the owners had an operating loss of $232 million in 2001. The number for 2002 is expected to be much higher, though players and media have traditionally disputed owners' claims of money losses.
To remedy the situation, the owners have proposed revenue sharing and a luxury tax, both of which would penalize free-spending teams like the Yankees and every other team that has a payroll over $100 million.
The players in the past seemed to be amenable to both concepts, which, according to Mr. Korr, bodes well for a resolution. "The players made significant changes in the approach after the 1994 strike by accepting the principles of revenue sharing and a luxury tax," he says. "Now we're dealing with amounts of money and numbers. That's a basis for an agreement."
The players feel they have to resolve the issue before the end of the season, when they would lose much of their bargaining power over the owners, who lose the most money if there were a strike during the postseason. Thus, it is the players who are strategically forced to press the issue by setting a strike date.
However, the players seem to be more reluctant to strike than they have been in the past, realizing it could be costly.
"We want to keep playing," explained Michael Barrett, the catcher for the Montreal Expos, in an interview earlier this season. "We hear the talk about a strike, but we try to stay focused on doing our jobs. I hope this thing can be resolved."