Big baseball pay battle threatens one strike and all out for summer

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WE ARE in the middle of the seventh inning and Joe Spirko, seated a few rows above the home-side dugout in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, rises with the crowd for a ritual chorus of 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'. His is a revised version, though. With new and angry lyrics, it is an anthem of protest against a national baseball strike set to start on Friday.

Spirko, 38, a huge man with shaggy shoulders and a blue-striped towel draped over his head to combat the 90-degree heat, bawls out the words, waving his arms about like a music hall ham. 'Take me out to the ball game, let's not strike this year,' he launches forth. 'If you go on strike, I'm not coming back. No way, I don't care.'

Returning to the ballparks this year may not be an option for Spirko or anyone else. So bitter is the dispute between the players and owners in baseball's major leagues that if, as seems almost certain, the threatened walk-out occurs on Friday the entire remainder of the summer might be lost. It could even spill into 1995 and wreck a second season.

In so far as it is a battle between workers and bosses about money, it is an ordinary dispute. But in this particular industry the average annual salary is dollars 1.2 million (pounds 780,000). Minimum pay is dollars 109,000, and half-a-dozen of the biggest stars make more than dollars 5m a year. In many instances, the players earn more than the owners they mean to strike against.

And then there is everything that baseball stands for. If you want to glimpse the soul of this country, you can do no better than to attend a baseball game, whether inside a major league stadium like the Veterans on a sweltering weekday afternoon or, better still, on the rickety benches of a minor league field under lights on a summer evening somewhere in the deep Midwest. As the historian Jacques Barzun observed in 1954: 'Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.'

If it goes ahead, this will be the fifth stoppage in the past 23 seasons and probably the most damaging since 1981, when a strike interrupted play for two months mid-season. No surprise, then, that the White House is getting involved.

On recent trips around the country to promote health-care reform, President Clinton has found that baseball - not insurance premiums - is foremost in voters' minds. It was one of the topics also at a prime-time news conference on Wednesday. 'I think it would be heartbreaking for the American people if our national pastime didn't get through this whole season,' he said.

The frustration of the fans is only deepened by the scintillating quality of this season so far. Hopes remain high in several cities that the local team might make it to the play-offs and finally the World Series in the autumn (for 'world', of course, read the US and Canada). Several records are in jeopardy, with San Francisco's Matt Williams, for instance, on course to break Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs. If the season is broken off none of that is likely to come about.

At issue is a proposal by the club owners to institute a cap on players' salaries, as is already the case in both football and basketball. The reform is vital, they say, because of the 28 major league franchises around the country, 19 are losing money or are projected to this year. The salary cap, which would be coupled with a new scheme to share revenue between the wealthiest and poorest clubs, would, in theory, allow the owners better to predict costs and ensure profits. Without such changes, they insist, clubs and professional baseball itself will be endangered.

But at negotiating sessions marked by a hostility far removed from the romanticism usually associated with the sport, representatives of the players' union have scoffed at the owners' claims. The atmosphere was poisoned further last week when the owners withheld a scheduled payment of dollars 7.8m into the players' pension fund. That action almost brought the strike's start forward to last Thursday - at the very hour the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates were dressing to do battle at Veterans' Stadium.

In the Phillies' 'Club House', a windowless bunker in the bowels of the ground, lined with players' stalls and littered with pieces of clothing and soft-porn magazines, the mood is dark but determined. 'It is a little weird, but you've got to do what you've got to do,' says Rick Bottelico, 24, a pitcher who only last week made his debut at major leagues level. 'I know the union is doing it for us, the younger players. I'm going to do like everyone else - go home and do some fishing.'

Pitching legend Fernando Valenzuela, also supports the union and looks irritated when asked about the plight of the supporters. 'The fans - they can tell you]' he snorts.

And they do. Their feelings range from weariness to outrage. 'We're being screwed,' complains Kurt Johnson, a cook in an Atlantic City casino. 'Screwed by the owners, screwed by the players.' While the fans blame both sides, sympathy is thinnest for the players.

'It's kind of hard to have compassion for a guy making dollars 3m a year going on strike,' says schoolteacher Tom Vivacqua. 'We're not watching players out there any more, we're watching corporations. They're probably worrying more about how their investments are doing than about their game.'

Spirko, meanwhile, is serious. 'If they strike, then I'm going to boycott the game. I'm not going to buy a ticket next year and I'm not going to watch it on TV. Not even if they make it all the way to the Series.' For Spirko, and millions like him, the field of dreams has become something else. The battleground of greed, perhaps.

(Photograph omitted)