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Out of America: Couch potatoes steamed up by baseball's long-running feud

WASHINGTON - At a pinch, I suppose, you could get interested in beach volleyball, indoor bowling, women's college soccer and other prime-time fare currently being peddled by the big US sports networks.

But it's not easy. Such though is the lot of the couch potato in this dismal, deranged American autumn of 1994. There's no baseball, there's no ice-hockey and soon there may be no basketball. Of the Big Four professional sports in this country, only football (the helmeted, shoulder-padded 'spot the ball' variety) is functioning normally.

To have an idea of what's happening - or rather, what's not happening - imagine a late March in Britain. A strike has ended the football season just as it was getting exciting. Another dispute has forced the start of flat racing to be postponed, while county cricketers are mulling over war with their clubs.

Only for the League Championship and the FA Cup final, read the World Series, baseball's tradition-drenched showcase that was due to have started this weekend, but has been cancelled for the first time in 90 years. Where the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression failed, the strike has succeeded. Add to this deprivation the 'lockout' imposed by the hockey owners, plus the possibility that basketball is heading down the same path, and small wonder we sports fans are in such a filthy mood.

And not only the fans are suffering. Some 68 days old as of yesterday, the baseball strike is the longest sports shutdown in the US. The players have lost dollars 230m ( pounds 150m) and the owners dollars 600m, with the prospect of worse to come as lucrative television contracts lapse. Thousands of caterers, ushers and box-office workers are out of a job. Last Friday the White House appointed Bill Usery, an old union hand who served in the Cabinet of President Gerald Ford, to try to broker an agreement. Usery is said to be the deftest labour mediator in the US. But even that may not suffice. 'I don't think Solomon could settle this one,' mused one baseball official. Hockey is a smaller business and its stoppage has lasted only 18 days: even so, a new dollars 155m television deal could be in jeopardy. This is not the place to delve into rights and wrongs, and such complexities as baseball's anti-trust exemption or the relative financial plight of small-market franchises which bedevils both baseball and hockey. Like most people I am fed up with the lot of them: both the baseball players who make an average dollars 1.2m a year; and the feckless owners who bid up salaries to these levels and then complain that they are bankrupting themselves. In all four sports, the bone of contention is a salary cap, a mechanism limiting a club's total payroll. Football players have one and don't like it. Basketball players have had one for years but want to get rid of it.

Hockey players are trying to wriggle out of one. Baseball players say they will rot in hell rather than accept one. Hence the stoppages.

What so maddens the fans is perhaps but the final act in the taming of America's trade unions. For decades now the power of organised labour has been waning. Automation, the explosive and fragmented growth of service industries, the ability to move plants or replace troublesome workers - all have eroded a union's ability to launch and win a protracted strike.

Nor are people very interested. Strikes do occur in the US, but whether they involve West Virginia coalminers, Detroit car workers or the once dreaded Teamsters union, press coverage is minimal. Somehow, the public feels, they don't really matter. Until now. Major league baseball players form arguably the most motivated and powerful union in the land. Their skills are virtually irreplaceable, except in the eyes of the baseball owners.

As matters now stand, the owners sometime this autumn will unilaterally impose the salary cap. They will then prepare for a regular 1995 season with teams composed of minor league players in a bid to break the strike and the union, once and for all. If the minor leaguers cross the picket lines, and fans decide that bad baseball is better than no baseball at all, then the strike - and the union - will be broken, albeit at the cost of poisoning the sport for decades.

Surely Mr Usery can stave off this ultimate lunacy. Meanwhile, back to tenpin bowling and beach volleyball.