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Time for a time-out. Called by the Shirts, of course, because the Skins have at the moment run up such a commanding lead in Moneyball that the owners are regrouping and some of them are calling for a drastic new tactic in-the 1980s. It is called teamwork, a game plan heretofore wholly alien to the hierarchy of professional sports. It will take some adjusting, because while the owners agree that nothing less than a new spirit of cooperation will suffice, that is typically about all they agree on. Still, it is a start and, as Phoenix Sun owner Richard Block suggests, the sports industry is still feeling its way. "It is one of the last businesses that no one knows anything about," says Block. "There are a lot of myths, and we all repeat them."
Fable No. 1 is that professional sports must adhere to the old monopolistic practices to prosper. The owners still operate their franchises like fiefdoms, and good resolutions will not change that.
Neither will a two-thirds majority vote of the owners. The leagues require that major changes be approved by at least a three-fourths majority of the owners. Hence doing away with territorial rights is not even discussed, because the bloc of big-city teams would never accede. Gate sharing, a more easily implemented and instantly beneficial reform, has been frequently suggested in the NBA and NHL, but again the owners controlling the strongest markets will have none of it. "We live by the Golden Rule," says Angel Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi. "Those who have the gold make the rules."
Inertia is the result, and the National League is its leading disciple. The reason it has failed to expand in recent years or to approve interleague play is that its bylaws stipulate that such weighty matters must be decided by the unanimous vote of all 12 owners, setting up a kind of Catch 12 situation. As Met Board Chairman M. Donald Grant recalls, the snag snuck into the bylaws when "one person a few years ago said, 'I will vote for such and such if in the future we won't do such and such unless it's enacted by unanimous vote,' and it went through at that time."
The upshot, says Expo owner Charles Bronfman, is that "you have a situation where every time you want to change anything, everybody takes a quick look and says, 'Now how's that going to affect my revenue?' And when you have a constitution like we have, that's just ridiculous. The unanimity rule has to be changed to a three-quarters rule." Small chance, because Catch 12 stipulates that the vote to change the rule on the unanimous vote must be unanimous.
Ranger owner Brad Corbett, among others, feels that his peers' recalcitrant ways, as epitomized by the National League unanimity rule, are the reason that they were a setup for the gains made by the players' unions. "We are stuck with this free-agent draft because of the stupidity of some hard-line owners in past years," he says. "They didn't give multi-year contracts, they didn't give players security, and in some cases, they didn't give players what they deserved. We had a good dance for a lot of years in baseball because of those tactics, but now we're having to pay for the fiddling."
Another young Turk, Phillie President Ruly Carpenter, feels betrayed by the prices that Corbett and the other big spenders are paying for free agents. "No court in the world can make a Gene Autry or a George Steinbrenner give a player $3 million," he says. "The courts cocked the gun. It's the owners who pulled the trigger."
Name calling knows no season and is as much a part of the pro game as keeping score. In fact, the boardroom tally never changes: two dozen strong-willed owners equal 24 factions. Personal rivalries abound. Cliques clash. The have-nots challenge the haves; East takes on West; young badgers old. And if an occasional ashtray is thrown in anger, everyone understands. "We're all little boys," says Bronfman. "If we weren't, we wouldn't be that interested in sports. We'd be much more interested in what General Motors stock was doing."
"Let's face it," says SuperSonic owner Sam Schulman, "owning a pro team is an ego trip." Lest anyone doubt it, a group of financial consultants recently did an appraisal of the value of a baseball franchise, and when they arrived at the final figure, they added on an extra $2 million and listed it as "ego ride."
The initial cost of the trip has become so expensive, however, that single occupancy is being replaced by group excursion. The era of the "sportsman owner," personified by the Red Sox' Tom Yawkey and the Cubs' Phil Wrigley, all but ended with their recent deaths. In their stead have come faceless ranks of syndicates, shareholders and conglomerates. Cincinnati is solid syndicate; the Reds, Bengals and Stingers are all owned by local investment groups whose involvement is pretty much limited to hiring a general manager, staking out their private boxes and taking their kids into the locker room to mingle with the stars.