Baseball: Congress' Surprise Squeeze Play On The Owners

As the nation's Major League players and owners enter the sixth month of their bitter strike, it's looking more likely that the saviors of a 1995 baseball season may reside on Capitol Hill. Key Congressional Republicans now are threatening to solve the dispute with a dose of one of their favorite elixirs: old-fashioned competition. They're readying legislation that finally would end the game's antitrust exemption, a 1922 relic that is viewed more and more as unfair protection for team owners.

No frivolous grandstanding, this. Ending the exemption would enable players to file an antitrust suit against the owners--and perhaps pressure them back to the bargaining table. An antitrust suit filed by players in 1987 against the National Football League eventually helped resolve their labor dispute. If Congress acts, "the likelihood of settlement goes way up," says Donald M. Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

SECOND THOUGHTS. The GOP's threat to rescue the national pastime by taking labor's side is one irony of the Republicans' Nov. 8 election romp. "You'd think unions do best when the Democrats are in control," marvels Brookings Institution economist Henry J. Aaron. In fact, Democrats threw out the first pitch. New York Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, who represents frustrated Mets and Yankees fans, introduced a bill to lift the exemption on Jan. 4. The broad exemption from antitrust laws, which no other American sport enjoys, lets owners divide up exclusive territories for their teams and veto franchise moves.

But Republicans quickly fanned the flames--which is why the legislation is being taken seriously this time. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has hinted at a bill of his own. While there's only limited sympathy for millionaire players, the pols have even less empathy for the owners, who unilaterally imposed a salary cap after negotiations collapsed on Dec. 22. "As a baseball fan, I say a curse on all their houses," fumes Senator J. James Exon (D-Neb.). Exon blocked repeal of the exemption on the Senate floor last year but now thinks Congress should step in.

SCARE STORIES. In the previous Congress, owners overcame attempts to kill the exemption by convincing many lawmakers that exposing baseball to the free market would wreak havoc on the game. And this time around, not all Republicans are rushing in to rescue the Boys of Summer. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, for one, still opposes lifting the waiver. He fears that if owners could move their teams at will, his Pittsburgh Pirates might leave town. Others on Capitol Hill worry that increased competition would erode Major League profits, which now support popular but uneconomic farm clubs in many Congressional districts.

In fact, many Republicans are hoping that the mere threat of legislative action might force intransigent team owners to rescue the season. That would give the Republicans a political home run--without actually forcing them to play umpire.

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