In the field of nightmares while the game he briefly courted struggles for survival in the midst of its most bitter dispute

Tom Verducci fears for the future of a national pastime when the strike is finally settled
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The Independent Online
A WEEK ago today, Michael Jordan, the most popular athlete in America, completed what even for His Airness was an astonishing leap; he jumped back into the National Basketball Association after having a go at professional baseball. It was the most visible example of the exodus undertaken by many more Americans. Like the rest of the country, Jordan was fed up with a strike by Major League baseball players that is entering its eighth month. "Michael didn't quit baseball," explained Phil Jackson, his coach at the Chicago Bulls. "Baseball quit on Michael."

Jordan struggled last year playing baseball, two rungs removed from the major league on the sport's professional ladder. But he saw no point in continuing his effort to reach the majors with no end in sight to the strike. Likewise, America is learning it can live without baseball, a once unthinkable proposition for a game traditionally embraced as the national pastime.

Jacques Barzun, a French-born college professor in America, once said: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." That sentiment, though, was born in the Fifties before the game faced any real competition for the sports entertainment dollar - especially from basketball and football, which now outpace baseball in the popularity polls - and before baseball was shut down eight times in the past 20 years because of labour disputes.

With the new season scheduled to open a week today, most fans were staying away from "replacement" spring training games in which owners have put washed-up players in the uniforms of the striking players. Attendances at such games have been about a third of what might normally be expected. Some who did show up wore paper bags over their heads or carried mannequins marked with "replacement fans" signs.

The stay-aways are probably good judges. A truck driver who pulled his lorry into Shea Stadium, New York's home of the Mets, asked for a trial. He was not only granted one but was signed to a contract on the spot. One of the Atlanta Braves' better pitchers is a 42-year-old college coach. The New York Yankees have a 20-stone first baseman who broke a metal chair simply by sitting on it.The Philadelphia Phillies have a 39-year-old grandfather playing shortstop.

"Watching these guys," said Bill Giles, chairman of the Phillies, "you can see why they didn't make the major leagues.They're all lacking at least one obvious skill."

The manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Davey Johnson, called replacement baseball "a travesty", while the Baltimore Orioles have refused to take part in the faux games and risk forfeiting all their matches. And the Toronto Blue Jays cannot use their state-of-the-art 50,000- seat stadium because Ontario provincial law bars the use of replacement workers. So the Blue Jays intend to play their games in a 6,000-seat minor league ballpark in Dunedina, Florida. Still, the owners vow to press ahead with the replacement games for one reason: to have something in place to entice the players to cross the picket line.

As the deposed commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent, correctly predicted, Americans view this morass as "cheap billionaires fighting with whiny millionaires". Indeed, the game was expected to generate revenues of $1.8bn last year before the strike began on 12 August. The 763 players were scheduled to earn an average salary of $1.2m, with one in four banking at least $2m annually. Worse, they've gained a reputation for petulance, typified by the common practice of charging children for autographs. The joke around spring training camps went something like this: How can you tell a replacement player? He's nice to the fans.

Supporters don't know who to root for. According to a recent poll by USA Today newspaper, 38 per cent of the respondents favour the owners, 25 per cent side with the players, and 37 per cent expressed no preference.

Why the bickering? Owners contend the industry is heading for financial ruin, especially for franchises in small markets with relatively low revenues. To stay in business, owners say they need a system that places a "drag" on players' salaries - even though they voted last month to add two more expansion teams, charging them $150m each to join the club. The players, meanwhile, distrust the owners, especially after a three-year period in the Eighties when the owners were found guilty of colluding with one another to drive down salaries. While the players agreed to modify the present system - accepting the owners' call for a luxury "tax" on payrolls - the two sides are still far apart.

For instance, the owners' most recent offer included a system in which teams would pay into a central fund a penalty tax on the portion of their payroll above the average ($40.7m). The "tax", which would have applied to 15 of the 28 clubs last year, would then be dispersed among the most needy franchises. The players figured the 50 per cent rate of this tax was so prohibitive it would artifically hold down salaries.They countered with an offer of a 25 per cent tax on payrolls above $54m. In that scenario, only one team would have paid a penalty last season.

While the two sides show little willingness for compromise, money is being drained out of the game. Nearly 30 per cent of baseball fans say they will be less interested in the game when the strike is resolved. Advertisers are sinking their money into other sports. The flagship radio station of the Yankees is suing the club for $10m, saying it should not be required to pay the same rights fee for replacement baseball as for the real thing.

"The irony is the players don't like the idea of a drag on salaries," Giles said. "But they already put the biggest drag on salaries ever created. The pie is shrinking."

Donald Fehr, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Association, believes that owners prepared for this war as far back as 1992 when they fired Vincent because they feared he would be "too soft" in labour negotiations. The owners have not bothered to replace him. They have assigned the commissioner's responsibility to one of their own, Budd Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

When the union struck, many of its members expected the owners to cave in after a few weeks. Instead, for the first time in baseball's rancorous labour relations history, the owners have maintained a unified front, declaring: "We can hold out longer than you."

"The standard operating procedure no longer applies," the Yankees' owner, George Steinbrenner, said. "The union miscalculated." Last September, the owners did something that no World War, stock market crash or earthquake could do since 1904; they cancelled the World Series. "We didn't really accomplish anything, except the damage we did to baseball," said David Glass, chairman of the Kansas City Royals. "I do think baseball will pay a price for what happened this year." Meanwhile, neither side appears to be in a hurry to reach a settlement. One particularly hard-line owner, Gerry Reinsbors of the Chicago White Sox, has predicted the shut-down could continue until 1996.

When President Clinton and his top mediator William J Usery invited both sides to the White House in February for a negotiating session, the guests showed little respect for the highest office in the land. One top union official called Usery "senile", while Clinton discovered to some public embarrassment he has no power in this dispute.

Sadly, the discussion of real economic issues has degenerated into a war of ideological ones. Each side distrusts the other and has adopted a long-term strategy to come out of this with a victory. The players want to win in court. They have asked the National Labour Relations Board to seek an injunction against the owners which would restore the previous working conditions. The NLRB is expected to do so this week, though a ruling from a US District Court judge would not come in time before 2 April.

The players maintain that if an injunction is granted they will return to work. However, the owners have indicated that, in that event, they would lock out the players, fearful that might strike again. Many owners believe players will break ranks and return to work once they begin to miss pay cheques (players are paid from April to September with the first pay cheque due on 15 April).

"I think 99 per cent of them are getting anxious," Giles said. "I have some optimism that the players want to make a deal. I don't know about Donald Fehr. But they have taken over and put pressure on him to get a deal." And, as one influential agent said, noting that the average player loses about $7,000 a day during the season: "This strike may be solved by the wives."

The major league players have begun organising a barnstorming tour in which about 120 of them would travel around the country playing exhibition games. In addition, an alternative professional league plans to open next year, and, what's more, the United States Baseball League are offering players equity stakes in their teams.

Owners have expressed not an ounce of concern about either venture. What they should be worried about is how to restore the game's image. Many of the fans who aren't yet apathetic are angry. Some have organised grass- roots campaigns calling for a fan boycott when baseball does return.

Sports Illustrated, the country's most influential sports magazine, called for owners to open stadium gates and let spectators in for free and for players to donate their salaries to charity on the first day they decide to play ball again. But, whatever happens, the game will have lost its special, almost mythological, standing in America. Baseball will return someday.The national pastime, though, is dead.