New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had not noticed that the joke was on him, so one of his colleagues at a meeting of baseball owners decided to clue him in. The fellow owner fingered the lapel of the sport jacket worn by Steinbrenner, who almost never ventures out in public without his dark blue blazer. Alerted, Steinbrenner looked up and saw that even one of his fellow American League owners was wearing a blue blazer. Steinbrenner and the rest of the room burst out in laughter.
Funny, isn't it, how the tables have turned within the power structure of the owners' cartel. The traditional influence of some of the highest-revenue franchises—Steinbrenner's Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets, the Toronto Blue Jays and a newcomer, the Colorado Rockies—has been muted by a consortium of small-market and neophyte owners. The meek have inherited the mirth.
The concern that was driving small-market clubs the last couple of years was that player salaries were gobbling up an increasing percentage of their revenues. Their need for economic reform gained urgency when baseball's $1.1 billion gusher of a television deal with CBS ran dry after the 1993 season. The current TV package, a joint venture with ABC and NBC, was expected to yield about $7 million per club, half what the teams had been receiving. Consequently the small-market owners insisted that it was essential for all 28 major league teams to share their income, not only to maintain competitive balance but also to guarantee the economic survival of a handful of franchises.
"I sat next to George for almost every one of the revenue-sharing meetings," says Jerry McMorris, chairman of the Rockies. "Did we chuckle? It was more like a grimace. We could see the small-market teams coming into control, and there wasn't anything we could do about it. I'm sure the pendulum has swung."
Last January the mighty mites succeeded in ramming through a revenue-sharing plan by threatening to rewrite the rules so that the big-market teams would have to share their local over-the-air television income with the small-market clubs. Under the plan, revenue sharing would be implemented only if the players agreed to a salary cap, which would drive down payroll costs for all clubs.
This new world order of baseball owners has wrought a players' strike and, given the timing, an unprecedented shutdown of the game. The moment of greatest infamy occurred on Sept. 14, when one of the small-market guys, de facto commissioner Bud Selig, announced the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season as well as the postseason, including the heretofore sacrosanct World Series, which had been contested for 89 consecutive years. Selig, who moonlights as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and head of a car-leasing business, delivered the historic pronouncement amid the Bavarian kitsch of the employees' dining room at Milwaukee County Stadium. That setting only served to underscore how Selig has risen on the owners' depth chart from wurst to first.
No less stunning, this reengineering of the power structure has resulted in the longest sustained solidarity among owners in baseball's miserable history of labor relations. "With each passing day of the strike," says McMorris, "the resolve among the owners was like concrete setting: getting harder and harder. That is in stark contrast to the previous seven encounters with the players" union, when the owners exhibited all the rigidity of Jell-O.
The owners, however flush with the Pyrrhic victory of their solidarity, are hardly without their troubles. For one, they have little use anymore for their designated negotiator, Richard Ravitch. "Who?" one of them asks mockingly. For another, the high-revenue clubs are a simmering kettle of unhappiness that Selig & Co. must continue to keep covered. "I'm not a happy camper." Steinbrenner says, "but I'm loyal to Bud Selig's leadership."
Two owners, Marge Schott of the Cincinnati Reds and Peter Angelos of the Orioles, refused to sign Selig's World Series death certificate. Schott wanted to resume the 1994 season with minor leaguers. The independent and unpopular Angelos, who made his fortune as a labor lawyer, objected to the inflammatory wording of the document, such as a charge that the players have been "unwilling to respond in any meaningful way" to the owners' demand for a salary cap, which both sides have long known is a provision the players find abhorrent. Another owner agreed with Angelos but chose not to join him and Schott in abstention because, he says, "I always figured you are judged by the company you keep."
Still another big-market owner complains, "I truly believe small-market clubs need some help. But I have no sympathy for people who don't know how to operate a team properly. And there are some cities that have done everything they could, like Montreal, but if the fans don't appreciate that, then I'm for relocation."