Out of America: Baseball strikes a blow to fans as game heads for a stand-off

BALTIMORE - Is there anything on earth more perfect than the primal duel between pitcher and hitter across a floodlit diamond of green turf, in the great amphitheatre of a major league ballpark? In fact, quite a few things.

But baseball can strangely distort the judgement of otherwise normal American adults. The rule of 'three strikes and you're out' is apt to be likened in significance to the law of gravity. They will rhapsodise about the divine symmetry of the infield, as proof that baseball is the Game of God. And they will put up with its every idiocy.

But an idiocy is on its way which will test even the blindest devotee. Barring celestial intervention - or, equally improbable, an onrush of plain old common sense - some time in the next few weeks a strike will bring the national pastime to a shuddering halt.

Imagine the British equivalent. It is April in one of the best football seasons in years. The championship is building to a thrilling finale, the FA Cup is down to the last four. At which point the players of the Premier League walk off the job. Not because they want more money but because the chairmen are trying to impose a system to limit salaries and even up income between the richest and poorest clubs. Goodbye League Championship, goodbye Cup final.

This more or less is what is happening in the US. Such uncertainty as there is surrounds the strike date the players are expected to set later this week. Sometime in August would be taken as a signal that a quick settlement is still possible. But if the players wait until the end of the regular season, then it's goodbye not just to October's 1994 divisional play-offs and World Series but, many would predict, to the 1995 season as well.

In terms of generalised lunacy, that prospect takes some beating. After years in the doldrums, baseball is on a roll. The sport now has the young superstars who used to be the monopoly of football or basketball. There are splendid new stadiums like the one here in Baltimore, sold out for nearly every Orioles game. Hitters are smashing home runs in unheard of numbers, while a divisional realignment is keeping more teams in contention. Even the Cleveland Indians have a chance of their first title since the mid- 1950s, the sporting equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea.

And why is all this now at risk? Quite simply because of a powerful players' union, which aggrieved and vengeful owners are determined to cut down to size.

These may be rough times for organised labour in the US, but not for those 800 uniquely skilled individuals who belong to the Major League Baseball Players Association. Their ability to hurl a 5oz grimy-white ball at 90mph, or to hit it with a slender wooden bat, will this year earn them an average dollars 1.2m (pounds 750,000) apiece. No replacement workers can duplicate those skills.

The past 22 years have seen eight baseball strikes or lock-outs, including a two- month stoppage in 1981, the longest strike in US sports history. The players have won every single one - but, if the owners are to be believed, at a ruinous cost.

To hear them tell it, 19 of the 28 major league teams are losing money. The poorest cannot compete in the bidding wars to secure the best players' services, and are therefore doomed to possible extinction. The owners' solution is revenue sharing, whereby rich clubs subsidise the poor and total club payrolls cannot fluctuate by more than 15 per cent from the average. In other words, the dreaded salary cap, bad news for stars who command up to dollars 7m. On top of that, the owners want to reduce the players' share of baseball's overall revenue from 58 per cent to 50 per cent.

The union says 'no'. If the owners want to share money, so be it, but not at the players' expense. And are not salary caps an interference with the free market?

At this point, the issue becomes how to inflict the most damage upon your opponent. The owners would like to wait until winter, declare an impasse, and impose their salary cap unilaterally when there is no income to be lost. Hence the likely pre- emptive strike. Cancellation of the play-offs and World Series would deprive the owners of huge television rights, while the players' 1994 salaries would have already been paid.

So who will prevail? History says the players. But sooner or later, in baseball as in life, every winning streak must end. The owners have changed their own rules, stipulating a three-quarters majority (21 out of 28 major league franchises) for acceptance of any deal, handing an effective veto to as few as eight clubs.

So sour is the mood that this quorum will not be hard to assemble. Right now, divine intervention really is the fans' best hope.

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