Baseball pitched into crisis for 1993: A meeting of the sport's rulers this week may result in the players being locked out. Richard Weekes reports

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The Independent Online
AS the owners gathered at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, at the weekend to proclaim their financial woes, it came as the worst possible news. The new owners of the San Francisco Giants were about to pay out dollars 43.75m (pounds 29.1m) over six years to make Barry Bonds, the Pittsburg Pirates left fielder and the biggest prize in this year's free agent market, the highest-paid player in baseball.

The Bonds deal did not quite fit the image of a game in crisis which the owners are keen to put forward at this week's winter meetings. They insist that most of them are losing money and, pointing to the figures showing player costs eating up 50 per cent of revenue, they say they must act to reduce players' salaries. Today they will decide whether to exercise their option to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement this winter, forcing a new contract on the players union which, if rejected, could lead to a lock-out next spring with the loss of part or all of 1993 season.

Some are clearly prepared to go that far. Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and leader of the hardliners, said recently: 'You force the issue by telling them (the players) we're not going to play unless we make a deal and being prepared not to play one or two years if you have to.'

The players' reaction to this echoes the complaint Mrs Thatcher made of the English football authorities after Heysel, when she mocked their inability to find any money to modernise grounds while splashing out millions on transfer fees. 'When people cry doom and gloom,' Don Fehr, head of the Major League Players Association, said, 'it suggests to me their motives aren't to talk about the state of baseball but to set the stage for some new bargaining venture.'

Guiding the owners' new bargaining venture is Richard Ravitch, 59, the former head of the New York transit system who ran for mayor of the city in 1989. He was hired to produce a plan that would, in his own words, 'straighten out the game's finances'.

What he has come up with, and what the owners will vote on today, mixes old-style capitalism (bash the union by imposing a salary-cap system and eliminating salary arbitration for younger players, backed up by threat of a lock-out) with socialism (limited profit-sharing between richer and poorer clubs). 'If the union believes we will not lock out, why should they negotiate with us?' he asks. 'You have to be prepared to do it, and once you're prepared to do it it'll never happen. That's the basic principle of labour negotiation.'

The last time the owners locked out the players, in 1990, Fay Vincent was commissioner. It was his intervention to end that dispute, on terms which the owners felt were too favourable to the players, which earned him the undying enmity of some of their number and which ultimately forced him out of office on 7 September. 'I was accused of being soft on labour,' Vincent said recently, 'which is like being accused of being soft on communism in the 1950s.'

With Vincent gone, and power effectively resting with the 28 owners, they would seem to have a free hand to dictate their terms. The incentives to find a common strategy are great. Attendances were down for 18 of the clubs this year. Operating profits for all clubs declined from dollars 143m in 1990 to dollars 87m in 1991. This year, according to major league officials, the industry will barely break even, 1993 will show a substantial loss and 1994 - the first year of a new national television contract which may be up to 40 per cent down on the current one - will be a 'disaster'.

Yet not all the owners are equally moved by the impending crisis. For every Pittsburg or Cleveland who are forced to offload their best players to stay afloat, there are teams like Toronto who have set attendance records two years running and big city clubs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles still making money thanks to their huge local television markets, which free them from dependence on the national networks.

There are other reasons why baseball needs to be on the field, and not behind locked gates, in April. The Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies will be bringing thousands of new fans to the game in Miami and Denver when they make their entrances in the National League. 'Do you want to take all that away from your game?' Andy Dolich, vice president for finance at the Oakland Athletics, says. 'Do you want to say thanks for your dollars 100m franchise fee, fellas, but you're not going to be playing till 1994.'

Neither is it certain that a majority of owners will buy the profit-sharing scheme. 'I don't expect profit-sharing to go through till the game really crashes,' Dolich says.

If the owners accept Ravitch's recommendation to reopen the labour agreement, negotiations with the union will begin in January. But it may be that, though he was able to make the New York subway run on time, the task of getting 28 owners to agree on a common destination will prove beyond him.