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The players are not on strike. Regarding the reserve clause, Miller says they do not want anything not already upheld in the Messersmith case. But management locked the players out of the camps pending a compromise, or at least pending some movement toward a compromise. At week's end the owners proposed that an eight-year major-leaguer would be free to play out his option the ninth year. (With the average major league career being 4.1 years, nine years should cover it.) Without such firm ties, management sees these evils:
Players would flit from team to team, getting increasingly astronomical salaries and alienating fans. Clubs would not be able to meet expenses (developing players costs each team about $1.5 million a year), and some will go broke. Competition will die because the best players will gravitate to Los Angeles and New York.
To each of these fears, the players say, "Phooey." They insist they would not jump from team to team any more than they now are traded by the owners, which is a lot; that salaries would not go up all that much except for the superstars, who deserve more anyway; that few owners can legitimately plead poverty; and that all the good players would not go to the two glamour cities because many of them like it where they are; plus, no good player wants to move to a team where he will end up sitting on the bench watching even better players perform.
Are there any ways out of this jungle? Many. Predictably, the best solution is likely the easiest. The owners could accept what the courts are ramming down their throats. Even Lee MacPhail, American League president, admits, "We're trying to swim against the social current. We've got to change." The trouble is that for years, with everything running the owners' way, they turned their backs when Miller would bring up the idea of important modifications in the reserve system. Suddenly, the trump is held by the players. Or is it a gun?
Privately, many top-level baseball people are saying they can live without the reserve clause. Some have even said it in public. Veeck says he has been against the clause since 1941, when he wrote a letter to Judge Landis, baseball's first commissioner, saying the system was "morally and legally indefensible," and got a letter back in which Landis noted, "Somebody once said a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and your letter proves him to be a wizard." Phil Wrigley, president of the Chicago Cubs, says baseball does not need the clause. Buzzy Bavasi, president of San Diego, says, "I think without the reserve clause baseball will be fun again. If I need a shortstop, I'll decide who the best shortstop is and go after him."
The general thinking is that without the reserve clause or with serious modifications of it, the 5% of the players who are superstars will get much more money. The 20% of the "fairly decent" players will get a bit more than they do now, and the remaining 75% will not benefit or may even lose ground. Says Bavasi, "I think a lot of $25,000 journeyman players are going to go out on the free market and find they are worth $23,000."
Another solution is for the players to agree to waive the rights won in the Messersmith case. John Gaherin, chief negotiator for baseball's 24 owners, insists the players, in fact, "have a duty to do so." Miller contends the union cannot abridge the new player freedoms because it would be open to lawsuits from individual members. But Tom Seaver of the Mets says, "The Players Association is willing to give up some of what it has won in the courts if the owners will also give up something."
Perhaps to prevent bidding wars a ceiling could be put on the total amount each team can spend on player salaries. This is a very good idea—except each of the owners whispers that other owners will cheat. Peter Bavasi, San Diego's general manager, suggests a simple chart for salaries, with pay based on performance. Veeck thinks players might be bound to a team for seven years—including minor league time—so clubs can recover player-development costs. After that, he says, let the market work its will. Players seem to think four or five years of fidelity to one team is more realistic.
It is possible that spring training could go ahead with the proviso that an agreement must be reached by, say, Sept. 1, or the season would then be suspended. This would buy time. As Cincinnati's Johnny Bench says, "The Players Association and the owners have waited too long before getting down to negotiations."
Meanwhile, Messersmith is a man without a team. Both league presidents have instructed clubs not to deal for Messersmith pending final disposition of his case. Many teams obviously would like the services of a 20-game winner, but some are afraid to hear the price. Last year Messersmith made about $120,000. In a free market he would probably get $250,000.