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Savran: Baseball caught in no-win situation

Saturday, March 24, 2001

Ask Donald Fehr, the most powerful man in baseball, Grand High Exalted Ruler of the players union, what his favorite movie is, and I bet he'd choose "Groundhog Day." The one where Bill Murray keeps living the same day over and over again.

Why wouldn't Fehr love that flick? For 25 years, baseball's "deja-vu all over again" has been a bonanza for the rank and file.

Why would they want anything to change? The short answer is, they don't. And won't ever allow it to.

And given their undefeated record in court against the owners, it probably never will. But clearly it should.

The recent round of Gary Sheffield/Frank Thomas "It's not about the money" has caused a tidal wave of nausea, reminding fans why its become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the game anymore.

At a time when baseball finds itself sandwiched between asking fans to gradually and grudgingly forgive them for the work stoppage seven years ago, with another impending seven months hence, players with inviolate contracts, paying them in double digit millions for multiple years -- contracts to which they affixed their signatures willingly -- should now be disregarded.

Why?

Well, it's not about the money of course. It's about respect.

But as former United States Senator Dale Bumpers once said, "If someone says it's not about the money, you can be sure it's about the money." Amen.

But this isn't about Thomas' interpretation of a binding contract, an interpretation which caused even his hard-edged agent to quit Thomas' employ. It's about changing the system, although up front I will tell you the union will never agree to it.

What if all contracts were based on production? What if every major-leaguer would be paid on a salary plus performance basis?

Each player would receive a negotiated flat fee per season, based on length of service. Then that player's performance would dictate his compensation, the levels of which would also be part of the collective bargaining agreement.

For instance, a guy would receive "x" amount of dollars of he hit 20 home runs, "x" amount more if he hits 25, and so on.

Same thing applied to all offensive and defensive categories, attainable premiums being awarded for nonpower hitters as well. And obviously, a different formula for pitchers. That would eliminate guys such as the Big Pout crying about his already-agreed-to-contract becoming outdated based on what others are getting on the current market. What you hit is what you would get.

This might reduce the disparities currently ripping at the competitive seams of baseball. If a guy got paid the same per home run in Milwaukee as he would in New York, would there be such a rush to play for the Yankees or Mets?

Fehr would complain that such a system would restrict movement of free agents, limiting the bidding wars that drive guaranteed salaries. So the players must be thrown substantial bones. The pay-for-play system has got to be lucrative.

We're not necessarily trying to lower salaries, just tying them to what you do today, not what you did yesterday or what you might tomorrow. And to appease the players, the current waiting period of six years to become a free agent would have to be reduced.

That would give more players the opportunity to move more often. But as a counterbalance, a bonus could be offered if a player stays with the same team, assuming that team is interested in retaining his services.

Naturally, there are problems with this system. It would accentuate individual instead of team play, although it can be reasonably argued that the way some of these guys behave, that's not radically different from what we now must stomach.

How many would give up an at-bat, and thus a potential bonus, to move a runner? Not many, although built-in bonuses for team accomplishments might combat such financial narcissism.

Another concern is the players' abiding mistrust of management, the result of a decades-old rancorous relationship.

Let's say Thomas has a million dollar bonus for 40 home runs. With a week to go in the season, the Big Pout has 38.

The White Sox, however, have been mathematically eliminated since Labor Day. With nothing to fear but Fehr himself, what's to stop White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf from ordering his manager not to play Thomas the last week of the season, so he can't reach the magic 40? A public outcry? Another reason the players would eye this proposition suspiciously.

And so baseball's Groundhog Day is spliced together, beginning to end, end to beginning. The reel spins around, beginning and end indistinguishable.

Until the projector breaks down and the theater goes dark.


Stan Savran is the host of a weeknight sports talk show from 8 to 9 on WBGG-AM (970).

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