COLUMN

The majors throw a masquerade ball

BOB LEVIN February 27 1995
COLUMN

The majors throw a masquerade ball

BOB LEVIN February 27 1995

The majors throw a masquerade ball

COLUMN

BOB LEVIN

Good morning, ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. We’ll be taking off pretty soon now. As soon as—well, what the hey, I haven’t flown one of these things since the second war. Man, you should see this control panel! Buttons and knobs like you wouldn’t believe! But don’t you worry, I’ll figure the sucker out. And meanwhile, you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Hey, look at it this way—you’re only paying half price!

All right, so we’re talking about replacement players, not pilots. And no, baseball is not a life-or-death matter (unless you happen to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox). The worst that can happen, as the motley lot of has-beens and never-weres creak and groan in Florida and Arizona this week, masquerading as major-leaguers, is that fans will die laughing, or crying, or the game will slip slowly into a selfinduced coma. And that’s bad enough.

So much for the season of hope. So much for all that eagerly devoured minutiae from the spring-training front, the dispatches of intrepid writers and broadcasters who make the supreme sacrifice of jetting off to the sun to keep the rest of us informed. There’s the rookie hurler throwing smoke, the gritty veteran recovering from knee surgery, the slick-fielding shortstop who just might come north if he can hit his weight Or there would be, if there weren’t dreary labor news instead—and just when the hockey hangover was wearing off.

And there are the replacement players, many back from the baseball dead—a perverse spin on the movie Field of Dreams. The owners called, they came, bent on living the big-league dream, counterfeit though it may be, and collecting the big-league paycheque, which is definitely not counterfeit (minimum wage in Canadian funds: $161,500 a year). To be fair, these stand-ins may be fine athletes, and fine people, too, with mothers and fathers who love them, but in this case they are simply bait. They are what the lords of baseball are dangling to lure back the real players. They are what the league is doing to break the union.

Trash the striking players all you want. Call them pampered, overpaid, unappreciative,

and no one will dispute it. But it’s the owners who have continued to hand out those absurd contracts even as they skewered the players for letting them; they’re compulsive shoppers who blame the things they buy. And it’s the owners—or the hard-core of them now controlling the baseball cartel—who are sponsoring this game of big-league dress-up.

Baseball stories are not supposed to mention U.S. presidents, unless the Prez is tossing out a ceremonial pitch or taking in the World Series. And they haven’t included senators since the sad-sack Washington franchise left for Texas in 1972. Yet there was Bill Clinton, desperate for a political hit, striking out in his recent attempt to force a settlement. And there were senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Orrin Hatch and Bob Graham introducing a bill last week that would partially repeal baseball’s antiquated antitrust exemption, freeing players to take the owners to court. That leaves matters up to Congress, whose Republicans, suddenly puffed up with power, have never been noted for helping unions, let alone Democratic presidents. Union chief Donald Fehr said that, if the bill passes, he’ll recommend that players take up their gloves. But that, in turn, might just tempt the owners to lock them out.

All of this, make no mistake, is about rich folks dividing up the loot. It’s about who pays to keep so-called small-market teams afloat— baseball’s version of Canada’s transfer payments. The owners, under presidential pressure, recently dropped their hated cap on salaries. The players, meanwhile, have accepted the notion of a tax on teams that spend over a certain level. Clinton’s mediator, Bill Usery, proposed a 50-per-cent tax on the part of payrolls over $56 million—a number that falls less than $1 million below the team average.

Is that the makings of a deal? Ken Singleton, a former major-leaguer paid by the Montreal Expos as their broadcast analyst, believes the reality of replacement ball might prove a powerful incentive. “I think once the owners get these guys in there they’ll realize they can’t play the way the regular major-leaguers can,” he says. “Nobody can. That’s why it’s major-league baseball.” Will fans show up? “If I didn’t have to,” replies Singleton, “I don’t think I would.”

Just how silly will scab ball be? What could be sillier than the Toronto Blue Jays, abiding by Ontario labor law, playing their “home” games in the land of pink flamingos and key-lime pie? (The Expos, intent on staging this farce in Montreal, are trying to secure a waiver of a federal ^ law that bans importing fori eigners to replace strikers.) z Of course, the games 8 might be entertaining: blooper films—featuring balls scooting up arms and under legs—are always good for a chuckle. And there is another question, as Jays’ spokesman Howard Starkman points out: ‘We have no idea what the competitive level will be— whether we’ll beat someone 25-0 or get beat 25-0.” And what happens to the competition if some established star does decide to play and tears up the league? So far, the only one to make such noises is Lenny Dykstra, the tobacco-spitting Philadelphia outfielder who has crashed headfirst into a few too many fences—and he quickly recanted.

So it’s actually come to this. The ’94 World Series wiped out, an uncertain season ahead. Will sanity prevail? Or will the owners—led by car-dealer-turned-acting-commissioner Bud Selig—keep trying to sell us this lemon, this gussied-up junker? Will October bring a scab Series, the winner to play the Chug-a-Lug AllStars for a case of brew and free tattoos?

Will the owners—with an assist from the players—kill the game they claim to love?

Hi, how’re you feeling? No, I’m afraid Dr. Smart couldn’t make it—he’s on strike. I’m Dr. Butcher, your replacement surgeon. Now, now, just relax. I’m a veterinarian by trade, and this can’t be all that different, can it? Now, just a little gas and you won’t feel a thing....