Baseball's most unnerving problem is the imbalance of economic power that's nearly as old as the game itself, and public awareness of it has been heightened by the advent of free agency. Some teams, the Yankees for one, pay out more in player salaries than many others take in in gross revenue. When the Mets signed George Foster and the Expos signed Gary Carter to contracts that will pay the players nearly $2 million a season, there were shudders in front offices across the nation. Significantly, Montreal and the Mets have local television and radio contracts many times more lucrative than, say, Seattle's.
Baseball cannot work up a national television contract the equal of the NFL's, which will pay each member team more than $14 million a year. "It's duck soup for them," says Kuhn. "But they have eight home games. We have 81." Cable television, a force in the near future, might represent a source of revenue sharing, and, to be sure, the owners have a revenue sharing committee. "Revenue sharing may be creeping socialism," San Diego Padre President Ballard Smith has said, "but it's better than creeping bankruptcy."
Meanwhile, the owners are watching with considerable interest the so-called Cincinnati experiment, which involves shoring up the farm system so that young talent is available to replace established stars, like Foster and Pete Rose, when their salary demands exceed the team's willingness or ability to pay. Marvin Miller feels the owners are already conspiring to beat the free agent system by offering contracts not appreciably different from those tendered free agents by their former teams. Nevertheless, player salaries have increased by upwards of 20% since last year.
A concern common to owners and players alike is the proliferation of player agents, many of whom are less than competent and honorable. "Some players are going right down the tube with some of these guys," says Grebey. "This is political dynamite for Marvin."
Miller sighs in agreement. "We did open the doors," he admits. "Before the 1970 Basic Agreement, the owners refused to talk to anyone but the players. The Basic Agreement that year established a player's right to be represented. On balance, I think I can still defend the system, but I'm not too pleased with the side effects." Miller's office plans to send detailed questionnaires to all identifiable agents asking them to give their background, experience, proposed services and fees. He has run seminars for agents on the dos and don'ts of representing players, and for players facing salary arbitration Miller is considering recruiting agents of his own who are specially versed in these proceedings. "You can't use a broad brush," he says. "Some agents are capable and conscientious. Some are anything but. The Players Association has no authority to license them."
Miller will not have to contend with such problems much longer. He has asked the players to find a replacement for him by next year at the latest. After 16 contentious and victorious years, he's retiring, concerned that some owners will think his absence will weaken the union. "My leaving has the potential of leading to another one of their misjudgments about the players' resolve," Miller says. "On the other hand, if they are finally convinced that the players can't be broken, the chances are good that for many years we will not go the route taken last year and that future negotiations can be conducted reasonably and progress can be made on a peaceful basis."
Kuhn's contract expires on Aug. 12, 1983, and he says, "I'm no blushing violet. I'll be available." He's especially enthusiastic about the expanded powers the restructuring committee is contemplating for his office. But if genuine progress is to be made, particularly in the area of player relations, a fresh face at the top might better serve the game. Kuhn has his enemies now among the owners, although one of his former critics, Williams, recently recanted. "I've come to believe that the commissioner's job is a difficult one," Williams said. "I've been unfair at times and I regret it. There are so many conflicts in interests and so many traditionalists opposed to change pulling at the commissioner in different directions. He's the commissioner of the whole game, not just the people I share a common view with." Kuhn has worked well enough within the authority granted him. But baseball desperately needs new vigor and independent thinking at the very top.
There are encouraging signs that some of the new owners, notably Eisenhardt and the Haas family in Oakland, have the kind of vision necessary to get the old jalopy rolling again. In the past, baseball's troubles have been caused by a lethal mixture of shortsightedness and hard-headedness. The owners generally have not been able to agree on anything except their common dislike of Miller and the Players Association. The players, for their part, seem oblivious to the game's real economic problems and have tended to regard all owners as grasping. These two conflicting forces, unfettered by a powerless commissioner, have sought only to defeat each other.
So a new season begins, this time with the turmoil in the background and the competition on the field. Let's play ball. The whole season this time, if you please.