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A QUESTION OF CONTROL
One of the most troubling legacies of the baseball strike is the lingering feeling that, during such a critical moment in major league history, the game's owners weren't in full control of their business. The owners left the handling of the dispute to chief negotiator Ray Grebey and other hired guns who badly underestimated the resolve of the Major League Baseball Players Association, found it only too easy to mislead the owners about the progress of the talks and displayed an appalling sense of public relations. Astonishingly, throughout the strike and to this very day, baseball's management has never publicly and officially explained why it was demanding greater compensation for the loss of free agents, which was the central issue in the dispute. The reason, of course, was the desire to put a lid on player salaries, but for legal and tactical reasons the owners, or at least their mouthpieces, chose not to say so. By not coming clean about their real motives, or indeed, suggesting any other convincing rationale, they left the impression that they were willing to incur a 50-day strike for reasons they couldn't even pinpoint.
A further sign that baseball's bosses don't have a firm grip on the game is the split-season format they devised once the strike ended. Instead of simply resuming the season, which would have been the wisest course, they chose to gimmick things up in hopes of hyping interest and generating extra playoff revenue. So they divided the season into two halves and decreed that divisional playoffs be held between the winners of each half. They further decided that if the same team wins both halves, it wouldn't receive a bye but would have to meet the team in its division with the second-best overall record in a glorious, revenue-producing, interest-generating, keep-an-eye-on-those-TV-ratings playoff. As everybody quickly realized, that raised the possibility a team might be able to get into the playoffs by deliberately losing (SCORECARD, Aug. 17). Thus it was that baseball found itself in an unseemly uproar last week when Chicago White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa and several of his players conceded that they might be tempted to dump or forfeit a late-season, four-game series with the Oakland A's. The A's were the American League West's first-half winner. If the A's were battling, say, Kansas City for the second-half title, and if Chicago had the second-best overall record, well, the surest way for the White Sox to get into the playoffs would be to thwart the Royals by letting Oakland win. St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog flatly said his team would lie down and play dead in similar circumstances in the National League East. Obviously there was a moral dilemma. Expressions of concern were heard, justifiably, about the integrity of the game.
With talk of tanked baseball games fouling the late-summer air, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and other baseball officials mercifully announced that the split-season format would somehow be amended to eliminate the possibility that teams might find it in their best interests to intentionally lose games. Still, it was hard to understand how baseball's brass could have gotten into such a pickle in the first place. Bob Fishel, assistant to American League President Lee MacPhail, implied that the owners didn't fully realize their split-season format contained such competitive land mines, adding, "The whole thing was probably done too fast." But Cincinnati Reds President Dick Wagner, one of three National League bosses who voted against the plan, said he and others raised the matter at the meeting at which the split-season plan was adopted.
Whatever the culpability of the owners, it remains a mystery why Commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn't immediately speak up against the scheme. What is Kuhn's role, anyway? He was practically invisible during the strike, claiming to be powerless in the area of labor relations. To be sure, Kuhn has occasionally taken actions supposedly intended to protect baseball's integrity, but such measures have always been highly selective. For example, he recently ordered Baltimore Designated Hitter Terry Crowley to give up a public-relations job at Timonium racetrack but has scrupulously taken a see-no-evil approach to Yankee Boss George Steinbrenner's ownership of a racetrack, Tampa Bay Downs. Apparently intoxicated by the prospect of lucrative playoff revenues, Kuhn similarly elected to close his eyes to the dangers inherent in the current split-season concept. Belatedly eliminating those dangers, welcome though such a step certainly would be, will do little to dispel the suspicion that, with the owners lamentably out of touch with what's going on, the national pastime isn't in the best of hands.
No, the owners weren't the only ones who came up with a dubious scheme for salvaging the strike-ravaged baseball season. Listen to the one advanced, tongue perhaps slightly in cheek, by Mark Nusbaum, a columnist for The Topeka Capital-Journal . Writing on July 7, in the midst of the strike, Nusbaum suggested that once the season was resumed, the major leagues should adopt " Texas rules," under which each batter starts out with a 3-2 count. Nusbaum explained that this would accelerate play so that teams could work in doubleheaders or even triple-headers each night, enabling games lost on account of the strike to be made up quickly enough to allow the full 162-game schedule to be completed.
Preposterous? Of course. But Nusbaum didn't just pull the idea out of thin air. He made his proposal only after heavy rain had caused a 49-team, double-elimination softball tournament in Topeka to fall so hopelessly behind schedule that officials adopted a modified version of Texas rules, in which each batter started with a 2-2 count. The scheme couldn't have worked better. Most of the games lasted less than 30 minutes, with some half innings being concluded in under a minute. The use of straight Texas rules—so called because they supposedly were devised to speed up play in an overcrowded softball league in that state—presumably would achieve even more dramatic results. What's more, Nusbaum insisted, they might even produce some good baseball. By starting each batter with a 3-2 count, he argued, "It would be power against power, the Gossage fastball against the Brett long ball."
Well, if you're going to insist on making a travesty of the sport... Texas rules, anyone?