It's maddening, sad and dispiriting to realize people can be so greedy as to bollix an enterprise that has made them rich and famous beyond ordinary comprehension. Yet here we are. Baseball has gone and done it this time. As incredible as it sounds, baseball's owners may shut the game down for an entire season.
Whether they're suicidal or posturing melodramatically makes no difference, because the result is the same. The current season would end when the players go on strike Aug. 30. There'd be no baseball in September, no World Series. No spring training next year, no games next year. Empty ballparks until April 2004. No joy in Mudville.
Baseball's equivalent of nuclear winter was first described to me two years ago by a man in step with the hawks among baseball owners. As we talked after U.S. Senate hearings in which Commissioner Bud Selig said his bosses were losing their shirts, the man said, "They should shut it down for a year, altogether."
When I repeated the doomsayer's words in the commissioner's office this summer, Selig said, "Yes, he believes that."
I named an owner and said, "He has suggested it, too."
"Yes, he has."
" 'Let's just close it down ...'?"
"Yes, he has," Selig said.
"All next year?"
"Yes, he has."
"Are you ready to contemplate that? Shutting down all next year?"
Selig said, "I can't let myself even think about that because I really want to keep focus on making a deal."
The truth is, if owners and Selig wanted to make a deal, they'd have done it a year ago. But circumstantial evidence suggests the owners' ambition is not to make a reasonable deal based on existing circumstances; they want to break the union, and they're willing to roll the dice on a long strike being the way to do it. And how to provoke such a strike? Just propose the one piece of collective-bargaining machinery the players have an unyielding antipathy to -- a salary cap.
The owners are not so foolish as to call their key economic proposal a salary cap. They call it a luxury tax, even a "competitive-balance tax." Any club that exceeds a certain payroll figure would kick in penalty money to the luxury-tax kitty.
That penalty money would be so costly, as much as 50 cents on $1, that few clubs, if any, would go there. So the luxury cap is a stealth salary cap.
To its credit, the players association hasn't flat said no to the luxury tax/salary cap. Instead, it has said players are not willing to go to the extremes proposed by owners. The owners' proposal now would affect as many as seven teams; the players' proposal would affect one.
To most of us, that doesn't seem a wide gap to bridge. But most of us haven't been at each other's throats for 30 years. And now comes word from an unlikely source that the owners have gone as far toward the players' position as they ought to -- word from Tom Hicks, the Rangers' owner.
He believes owners came out of the 1994 debacle having done nothing to improve their lot. Look, only two years ago, some fool made a $252 million deal with Alex Rodriguez that set fellow owners to grinding their teeth -- that fool being Tom Hicks himself.
Now, full of regret, Hicks has told reporter Ken Daley of The Dallas Morning News that "a majority of owners, including me, would probably like to have even stronger cost containment than we're talking about right now. If (the players) do choose to go on strike, I'm confident ownership will not allow a repeat of 1994. We need to fix baseball and not just have another Band-Aid solution."
To open spring training in 1995, baseball hired "replacement" players, men known in trade circles as "scabs." Scab-ball despoiled the land until a federal judge ruled MLB had not negotiated in good faith to an impasse and so could not impose its own working conditions. End of strike.
So I wondered if baseball again had considered the use of replacement players.
"That was a painful ordeal the last time, and we talked about it," Selig said. A pause. "I know the NFL did it in '87."
"And it was horrible," I said.
"But it led to long-term peace," Selig said.
Uh-oh, oh no, say it ain't so.
Well, the commissioner quickly added that he wanted to do no such thing.
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