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'96 Tears
Leigh Montville
December 30, 1996
It's a sad day for sports when salary caps replace party hats on New Year's Day
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December 30, 1996

'96 Tears

It's a sad day for sports when salary caps replace party hats on New Year's Day

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The New Year is a salary holdout. Negotiations have broken down, and there is a serious possibility that 1997 will not make its debut on Jan. 1. The issue is money.

Spurred by the big contracts that lured Shaquille O'Neal to Los Angeles, Wayne Gretzky to New York, Albert Belle to Chicago and Roger Clemens to Toronto, the New Year has declared itself a free agent. The White House says it is "keeping a close eye on things" as the clock ticks down.

"All we want is what a bright New Year should be worth," agent David Falk, who represents 1997, said on Sunday. "Just think of the promise and possibility that this New Year brings to the table. We think that this year can be bigger and better than any year in recent memory."

"Hah," acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig, representing the world at large, replied. "This is not an Olympic year. This isn't even a World Cup year. There's no reason to break the bank. We have an overall salary structure to consider. Think of all the years past. None of them has ever made the demands of this New Year."

No New Year has ever failed to begin work on Jan. 1. Not even during two world wars or the Depression was the sequence altered. The Old Year simply left. The New Year simply arrived. No other New Year has ever had an agent. Officials and sports fans everywhere wonder about the consequences. "If there's no New Year, does that mean there's no New Year's Day?" asks Rose Bowl queen Jennifer Halferty of Pasadena. "Is there no parade? No game? What happens to Arizona State and Ohio State, not to mention Florida State and Florida the next day in New Orleans? How will we determine who's Number 1?"

"I've already invested a lot of money in the New Year," Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, said. "I gave Belle a fortune to come here. This was supposed to be our year. Now I'm supposed to fork over some more bucks? Come on."

This is a problem. Virtually every team in every sport has already promised its supporters that the New Year is going to be a much better year. Stuck with the Old Year—1996—most would be in trouble. The Chicago Bulls, the Colorado Avalanche or the New York Yankees might be fine, but what about the New Jersey Nets, the New York Jets or the Ottawa Senators?

"I know I don't want to stay with 1996," said Jets coach Rich Kotite, who announced his resignation last week. "I would appeal to the Supreme Court to get out of it if I had to. Something about cruel and unusual punishment."

When negotiations began during the first week of September, the gulf between the two sides was obvious. Falk, hired by the New Year because he also represents Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning and other assorted NBA stars, pointed out the success of 1996, listing world records and championships and full houses at many athletic events. He said '96 "should be walking away with a fortune" but was receiving nothing. This fate would not befall his client. Selig laughed and made his now famous quote: "Sir, I knew 1996, and this New Year is no 1996." There has been little movement since.

Falk's demand on behalf of 1997 is for "all the money in the world or the same amount Michael Jordan will make, whichever is larger." Selig's offer is an incentive-laden contract with cash bonuses for, say, a perfect game or a tight pennant race in baseball, an American winning the Tour de France, a Triple Crown winner in horse racing, a Grand Slam winner in golf or tennis. Nothing would be guaranteed for the New Year.

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