Commentary: Good For A Rod, Bad For Baseball

George W. Bush had been waiting a whole month for a shaken democracy to elect him President. But on the do-or-die day his lawyers were arguing his case before the divided U.S. Supreme Court, a shortstop named Alex Rodriguez helped a different nine-person team steal the headlines in Texas.

"I think this will be the day an era of national prominence begins for this organization."

No, that was not Tom DeLay crowing about a victory for Bush and the GOP. It was Rodriguez' agent, Scott Boras, declaring the ascendency of the Texas Rangers.

Oh, the webs of baseball and politics. The Rangers, remember, are the team that the President-elect once owned. It's also the team that tossed Rodriguez $252 million--the largest player contract in U.S. sports history. In fact, Dallas leveraged-buyout king Tom Hicks paid more for Rodriguez than he did when he bought the team, The Ballpark in Arlington, and 270 acres around the stadium from Bush and partners.

How fitting that the W-Bush and A-Rod eras might begin as one, for it was Bush who set the table where Rodriguez will be eating well for a long time. Dubya's ability to get a publicly funded stadium in Arlington built in the early '90s meant that Hicks saw value in buying the Rangers. Were it not for such cheap hardware, Hicks would not be able to afford the pricey but revenue-generating software called A-Rod.

Hicks is now playing with the big boys of sports ownership. But at what price? On paper, it's going to cost him about $180 million in today's dollars to cover the 10-year deal. And he might have pushed the sagging national pastime and his friend Bush into a tight corner. The former Rangers owner who helped lay the foundation for A-Rod's megacontract could turn out to be the President who has to intervene to save baseball from itself (though Bush would probably have a better shot at success than Bill Clinton, who failed to broker a deal during the strike/lockout of '94).

Can we bear the thought of living through baseball's nuclear winter in 2002, when some sort of disruption seems almost inevitable? Even Sandy Alderson, right-hand man to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, says the Rodriguez signing is an indication that "we're in a crisis situation" that's "bad for baseball." For years, there has been building concern about the disparities between big-media-market teams--with fat TV deals and new stadiums--and teams with neither. As the collective bargaining agreement between sports' most unmoving union and sports' most undisciplined owners heads toward expiration after the 2001 season, a civil war between the have and have-not owners appears to be on the horizon.

But maybe not. Might this new day of conciliation and compassionate conservatism extend to baseball? Must owners try to force a salary cap down players' throats? Must players claim the game is healthy while fans in 18 cities rightly shout, "No, it's not"? A nation of baseball lovers awaits some answers. But then, we're getting used to waiting.

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