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Madden: McClatchy should play hardball

Saturday, July 21, 2001

The Pirates' new general manager is Dave Littlefield. No, I've never heard of him, either. But it doesn't matter who the Pirates' GM is, not right now, anyway. The Pirates are in a deep hole. They couldn't dig their way to contention if they had twice as much money to spend. Upper-echelon teams would just spend more to keep clubs like the Pirates at a nonrespectable distance, and the Pirates would just splash cash on the wrong guys (see Bell, Derek).

Dave Littlefield can't win the battle the Pirates must fight. Nor could Joe L. Brown, Harding Peterson or Syd Thrift. Only one man can get the Pirates on a legitimate path to respectability.

That man is Kevin McClatchy, the owner.

His fight begins once the season ends.

Baseball's owners and players must negotiate a new labor agreement after this season. But the real battle shouldn't be between the owners and players. It should be between the big-money owners and the low-budget owners. It should be McClatchy and his ilk against George Steinbrenner and his kind.

Owners like McClatchy must band together and take a hard-line stance: If there's no salary cap and no revenue sharing, then there's no Major League Baseball. Period. McClatchy and other owners at his financial level have to risk killing the sport to do what's right by their teams, because it's really what's right by baseball, too.

I used to love Major League Baseball. Loved it. But I can't even be bothered to follow the sport now. Yeah, every year there's a Cinderella team from a low-rent baseball city that miraculously contends. This year it's Minnesota. Whoopee. It's entertaining for a while, but eventually the clock strikes midnight and evil stepmother Steinbrenner gets to win another World Series.

If you're a Pirates fan, you're a fool. Hometown loyalty aside, you're sitting at a blackjack table with the deck stacked in favor of the house. Yet, you keep playing. How dumb is that?

McClatchy has a chance to help make it right. Or maybe he'll help destroy the game. But looking at it from a Pittsburgher's point of view, what's the difference? For the Pirates, the game's already ruined.

McClatchy has to realize that owners like Steinbrenner are not his allies. The big-money owners are technically aligned with the other owners, but they really want what the players want, namely indiscriminate, reckless and never-ending spending. The players get richer. The big-money owners corner the market on winning. That works for the players. It works for the big-money teams.

I defy anyone to tell me how that works for the Pirates. I defy anyone to tell me how Steinbrenner and McClatchy could possibly be on the same side.

Three-quarters of the owners -- 23 -- must approve a new collective bargaining agreement. If McClatchy wants to do what's best for his franchise, he'll help form a coalition of the eight to 10 owners who spend the least. Those eight to 10 owners should not break. They shouldn't even bend. Give us a salary cap or give baseball death.

The tragic thing about baseball's work stoppage in 1994 wasn't that the World Series got canceled. It was that no problems got solved. The owners, as always, capitulated.

I wouldn't mind seeing baseball disappear for a year -- or even two -- if a salary cap were implemented at the end of the work stoppage. Heck, with no salary cap, I don't care if baseball disappears permanently. A sport is no fun to follow if only a few teams can win. As the NFL -- the best-run sports league in the world -- has proven, a cap creates competition, and it's not as if the players are destitute.

The rich teams would still have more money to spend on superior management. On better scouting and development. Their money would still give them an edge. It just wouldn't be a suffocating edge.

I would be curious to see how the players handled hard-line negotiating by the owners. But really, who cares? Players are replaceable. The money that runs baseball isn't.

I would be even more curious to see how the Steinbrenners of baseball handled the McClatchys of baseball standing up to them.

I doubt my curiosity will be satisfied. McClatchy and the other nonbig-money owners will become obsequious lap dogs and help represent what's best for the Yankees and Braves, not what's best for their own teams. They will bask in the warm glow of the offensively wealthy minority that controls baseball, then go home and sell their fans on a five-year plan or some other such nonsense. The only big event for the tiny teams will be the annual trade-deadline fire sale where the rich get richer and the poor don't get a thing.

But one thing should be made clear to those who spend money on Pirates tickets: Owners like McClatchy have the power to make an impact on baseball's upcoming labor negotiations.

Here's betting they don't even try. If they don't -- if McClatchy plays along with the Yankees, Braves, etc. -- you should never buy a Pirates ticket again.


Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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