Here is the state of Major League Baseball today: The New York Yankees acquire superb reliever John Wetteland from the impoverished Montreal Expos for practically nothing. On the same day, the San Diego Padres sign washed-up Fernando Valenzuela, seeking a miracle.
New York doesn’t have to hope for miracles. George Steinbrenner can buy as many as he needs. San Diego, on the other hand, is your classic small market have-not, will-not and cannot.
As Cleveland general manager John Hart said, “It’s impossible for a small market team to compete against a smart club with unlimited dollars.”
However, there might be one saving grace. Steinbrenner has compiled an almost unblemished record of failure, despite spending millions on allegedly quality free agents. But that isn’t the point. It doesn’t matter whether a dumb guy with an unlimited budget can buy a championship.
When Hart heard about the Wetteland deal, he railed against the system to which baseball’s owners were forced to return after failing to stay the injunction obtained by the players’ union. It’s probably just coincidental the Yankees are the Indians’ primary roadblock to winning their first pennant in 41 years.
But whether self-interest is at the root of Hart’s complaint, his position is unassailable. The problem is that a smart general manager working for an underfunded owner cannot become successful. Not anymore.
There was a chance to correct this defect, but the owners were betrayed by bad legal advice, a negotiating faux pas on which the players’ union has come to rely.
The owners had the players on the ropes for a while. Donald Fehr’s union was backed into a corner with no place to maneuver until a lawyer working for the owners stepped in to rescue the union.
When the owners imposed a new set of rules on the players - including a salary cap - the union went to the National Labor Relations Board for relief. The NLRB, which frequently issues complaints on behalf of unions, was on the verge of telling the owners they were off base. Before that could happen, the owners chickened out, withdrawing the salary cap and everything that went with it.
That meant baseball was back to where it had been two years earlier, with a system that included arbitration, free agency and no collusive practices concerning salaries. That is not where the owners wanted to be, so they said they wouldn’t arbitrate, and they wouldn’t sign free agents, or anyone else, for that matter.
Their position gave the union such obvious grounds for an injunction that last week, an exasperated appeals court judge scolded the owners. The court told the Lords of Baseball they had a strong argument for imposing a new system on the union, and they should have fought for their position. But once they returned to the old set of rules, they had to abide by them.
Injunction granted. Strike over. Players win - for now.
The owners say they can’t live with the current system. They have a choice, of course. If the players won’t acquiesce to the owners’ idea of a luxury tax on high payrolls, they can impose their will on the union. Again. But if they do, the union has the option of calling another strike.
It probably won’t happen this year. The players forfeited one-fourth of their salaries last season and another 11.3 percent because of lost games in April. So, they are not likely to walk away from any money for a while.
But that should be small consolation to the owners. If they do not wrench an agreement from the union, the players may stage another strike in 1996. More than likely, the warring parties have only a relatively small window in which to reach agreement before inertia sets in and neither side talks to the other.
If 4-6 weeks pass without an accord, chances are there will be no agreement for the rest of the season. And you know what happens in the off-season? Nothing, which will be followed by a stressful spring training, as both parties posture and dare each other to force the issue with a strike or lockout. Isn’t baseball wonderful?
There is no way to avoid this scenario except with good sense, and there has been precious little of that.
The first thing the owners ought to do is create a system of revenue sharing that does not depend on the outcome of negotiations with the players. Maybe the union could even help. After all, if most good players end up with the Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, it isn’t going to be much fun for guys laboring in Pittsburgh, Montreal, Kansas City, San Diego, Milwaukee and the rest of baseball’s cash-poor outposts.
Players employed by these clubs will never win anything, and their salaries will be severely restricted, whether or not there’s a salary cap.
And waiting for impoverished teams to conduct inevitable fire sales that will send players to big-market franchises won’t be an option for everyone.
Developing a revenue-sharing plan independent of a new basic agreement is what the owners should have done all along. But dolts like Steinbrenner refuse to recognize that there won’t be much of a league if the Yankees and Blue Jays are the only franchises with enough money to field competitive teams.
A system of revenue sharing also would alert the players that the owners want to do something more than break the union.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.