Baseball labor woes seen on horizon

Posted on Dec 23 1998

NEW YORK— The storm clouds are gathering already.

Within minutes of Kevin Brown’s signing of a record $105 million contract last weekend, the anger of the small markets gusted through the Opryland Hotel like a squall.

If nothing changes, this will all intensify over the next three years and baseball will be shut down by a spring training lockout in February 2002, the sport’s ninth work stoppage in 31 seasons.

“No one is waiting until the last minute here,” Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo said Friday. “I think we’re trying to address all these issues early on and head on.”

Low-revenue clubs are shrieking. High-revenue teams say they’re playing by the rules.

Former Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson, one of the new executive vice presidents in the commissioner’s office, says 15-18 teams already have been eliminated from contention next season because they can’t afford to compete.

Commissioner Bud Selig won’t discuss that publicly, but others who have spoken with him say Selig agrees with Alderson.

“The only clubs making money are at the top end and the bottom end,” Alderson said. “The other clubs will figure it out.”

The line of demarcation last season was $48 million. Of the 12 teams with payrolls above that figure, eight went to the playoffs and all but one had winning records — the exception was Baltimore (79-83), which spent a major league-high $74.2 million, according to final figures sent to teams by the commissioner’s office.

Of the 18 teams below $48 million, only three had winning records — San Francisco (89-74), St. Louis (83-79) and Toronto (88-74). And the Giants ($47.9 million) and Cardinals ($47.6 million) were close to the $48 million mark.

It appears that unless a club is willing to spend $50 million or more in 1999, it has little chance of winning. Already, Baltimore’s payroll is $75,092,637 for 19 signed players, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press, with Charles Johnson still eligible for salary arbitration.

The Dodgers’ payroll is $71,870,286 for 17 players, with Doug Bochtler, Darren Dreifort, Mark Grudzielanek, Todd Hollandsworth, Carlos Perez and Ismael Valdes still eligible for salary arbitration.

Atlanta is at $70,845,000 for 19 players, with none eligible for arbitration.

The New York Yankees are at $68,557,475 for 18 players, including Darryl Strawberry, and have Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera eligible for arbitration.

Alderson says the media-driven teams “are almost going to be a supergroup.”

“The ownership of too many teams has gone off the deep end,” Athletics owner Steve Schott told the San Jose Mercury News. “The hope is that enough pressure is put on the large-market teams to make them realize that something needs to be done.”

A close look at free-agent spending shows eight teams have dominated the market. Of $931,225,000 given to 76 free agents through Saturday, $722.85 million — 78 percent of the total — was spent by eight teams: Los Angeles ($123.9 million), Baltimore ($121.2 million), Arizona ($118.9 million), the Yankees ($111.25 million), Anaheim ($91.9 million), Texas ($72.3 million), Atlanta ($42.5 million) and the New York Mets ($40.9 million).

And that doesn’t count the $123 million the Mets gave to Mike Piazza and Al Leiter, who re-signed before they could become free agents.

Most teams look at the top names and say: “Too rich for me.”

“There may be 10 or 11 teams who may be players right now,” Colangelo said. “Then maybe another bracket of four, five. Then maybe the rest.”

Some teams have been bought by corporate owners with big wallets — the Braves (Time Warner), the Angels (Walt Disney), the Cubs (Tribune Co.), the Dodgers (Fox Entertainment) — and George Steinbrenner is talking about selling Cablevision Systems Corp. a large interest in the Yankees.

Other teams, seeking to emulate Baltimore and Texas, have bet their futures on new ballparks. Seattle opens Safeco Field next July 15, while Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee and San Francisco move into new stadiums in 2000.

Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and San Diego also seem to be making progress toward new buildings.

Colangelo says new ballparks aren’t panaceas. Alderson, saying the poorer teams won’t be able to spend as much as the big boys, had an even blunter assessment.

“Those clubs should be scared to death of what’s happened in the last six weeks,” he said.

In 1998, revenue ranged from $170 million to $35 million, according to figures compiled by the commissioner’s office, which did not identify the teams. It’s believed the Yankees were the high figure and the Expos the low one.

Steinbrenner says revenue sharing cost his team $13 million and gained Montreal $13 million — more than 50 percent above the Expos’ payroll of $8.3 million.

“If that goes into player development, fine. If that goes into owners’ pockets, that’s wrong,” Steinbrenner said.

While revenue sharing, in effect at an 80 percent level this year, increases to 85 percent next season and to 100 percent in 2000, some teams already are convinced it won’t be enough.

Some low-revenue owners are thinking about threatening a work stoppage as a method of extracting more revenue from the large markets, several baseball officials said this week on the condition they not be identified.

Selig, according to several officials, fears that if NBA owners gain concessions from their players, it may encourage baseball’s hawkish faction to again seek a salary cap.

The players’ association probably will exercise its option to extend the collective bargaining agreement one year through Oct. 31, 2001, meaning the earliest work stoppage would be the following spring.

“Without some kind of a lid at the top and also some profit sharing, some revenue sharing, you can’t solve the problems in every one of the cities,” said Colangelo, who also owns the Phoenix Suns.

To players, a salary cap means war. Again.

“Every time since the beginning of free agency there’s an auction on a superstar free agent or two and the bar is raised, there’s an anguished call for a salary cap,” agent Tom Reich said. “While there are significant disparity problems, a salary cap in baseball will never happen.”

Disclaimer: Comments are moderated. They will not appear immediately or even on the same day. Comments should be related to the topic. Off-topic comments would be deleted. Profanities are not allowed. Comments that are potentially libelous, inflammatory, or slanderous would be deleted.