Ah, Those Owners. Those Crazy Owners!

legalbaseballFor two decades, the 17th century French theologian and scholar Claude-Francois Fraguier prosecuted a legal case that he could not, as friends told him, possibly win. When defeat arrived, those friends reminded Fraguier that had he listened to their advice, he could have saved himself years of suffering for nothing.

To which he answered, “Every night before falling asleep I’ve managed to win this case. Do you call that nothing?”

For almost 30 years, owners of Major League Baseball teams have consoled themselves in the Fraguier fashion.

They have fluffed up their pillows each night and dreamed they had devised a way to win the debate with the players union. But with each morning has come the awakening to defeat.

And now, alas, they’re at it again.

This time, they want to kill off two teams.

Bad enough, that. Never have more customers bought tickets, never has baseball been richer, perhaps never has the game’s heart beat more in rhythm with the nation’s.

Worse, the owners believe they can kill off two major league organizations–thousands of lives involved without so much as inquiring of the union, “Any ideas?”

It might not be legally necessary for owners to negotiate with the union on killing teams; the owners’ lawyers say it isn’t, but these are lawyers famous for being wrong. And we now know what union lawyers think; within hours of MLB’s euthanasia announcement, the union filed a grievance against the owners.

If not legally necessary, but in acknowledgment of their losing streak, might it be prudent of owners to try to work out with the union the death-to-small-markets details before commissioner Bud Selig announces them? What can these people be thinking to follow an inspiring World Series with this dreck?

Such questions come from wise men once involved in baseball, now retired but still engaged. One is Fay Vincent, Selig’s predecessor as commissioner. The other is Marvin Miller, whose work as the MLBPA’s executive director enriched players and owners beyond all expectation.

In the nine years since Vincent left the game–forced out by owners who considered him soft on the union–he has wished to run silent on controversy. “But sometimes,” he says, “there is something so incredibly provoking that I can’t restrain myself.”

The newest provocation grows from the owners’ decision to whack two of 30 teams. Not that Vincent disagrees with the strategy; “financially, it’s probably a very smart move. Thirty straws in the soup is not as good as 28.”

He is confounded by the owners’ unwillingness to acknowledge the strength, skill and influence of the players union: “I don’t see how you can say, `This is a critical time for baseball. We need the union’s full cooperation. We’re going to need major changes to save the game, which is in dire straits’–says Bud–and then, right out of the box, you trash the union by not even giving them the courtesy of talking to them about contraction.”

Hawks among the owners believe Selig’s announcement of a 28-2 vote in favor of wasting two teams demonstrates there is, this time, steel in their spines.

Now, the hawks squawk, everyone knows talk of contraction was no ploy, that the owners’ lawyers and economists consider last year’s Blue Ribbon Panel report to be the blueprint for a New Revolution.

Uh-oh. That report was prepared by MLB appointees with no union participation. If MLB believes the union will accept all the give-backs implied in that report, this is certain: Our guys in the Afghanistan mountains will count Osama bin Laden’s beard hairs long before baseball has a new collective bargaining agreement.

Miller, for one, sees the same-old same-old. “They just don’t change their spots,” he says of owners. Even if the unilateral contraction is legal–Miller thinks it’s not–he calls the timing of the owners’ execution edict “not surprising, but a little crazy” and says, “Public relations-wise, this was a goof of monumental proportions.”

And what was Miller’s first thought on hearing Selig’s announcement of contraction? A mischievous chuckle, then: “It was, `Whatever happened to Bud Selig’s $500,000 fine for people who violate the gag rule (on labor-management issues)?’ I assume Bud’s paid the fine, right?”

To whom would he pay it? Himself?.

As owner of the Brewers his interest in a blind trust, the club operated by his daughter–Selig has so many conflicts of interest that Miller says, “He really ought to resign. Who’s the team that benefits most if the Twins go away? His. The revenue-sharing money going to small-market clubs … he’s right in the middle. It’s just awful.”

Vincent’s tenure ended with Selig, the owners’ man on the labor relations front, insisting on revolution in 1993. “I kept saying, `Bud, we have to make a 10 percent gain this time, 10 percent next time. It’s a long way back’ You can’t run over this union. They’re too smart, too well run, too skillful. You have to make incremental changes. But Bud has never had the stomach for that.

“He’d say, `Oh, no, this is Armageddon.’

“Well, they got nothing. I left, they had a big fight, lost the World Series, got nothing. And now they do it again.”

In their dreams, maybe, they win.

Awake, they lose.

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