Commentary: Baseball's Owners: Now More Than Ever a Team Divided

Jimmy Dugan, the disheveled and disgusted manager that Tom Hanks plays in A League of Their Own, utters one of the all-time great lines about the national pastime: "There's no crying in baseball."

The whining, complaining, posturing team owners of Major League Baseball must have been out buying popcorn during that scene. There's no denying, though, that they have reason to bawl. Next season will be in jeopardy if a new labor agreement that addresses financial and competitive disparities cannot be hammered out between the end of the World Series and Opening Day, 2002. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is hurriedly attempting to build a cohesive bargaining unit, but because the interests of team owners have become so much more diverse since the 1995 work stoppage, that could prove tougher to pull off than an unassisted triple play.

In years past, the debate has focused on narrowing the gap between small- and large-market teams. Now those two factions have splintered into several subfactions. For example, owners who are highly leveraged due to new ballpark construction--regardless of market size--might be more inclined to embrace players' demands because they can ill afford a shutdown. Among them are the San Francisco Giants, whose annual debt service is $17 million.

Teams owned by individuals and currently in dire enough straits to be mentioned recently by Selig as possible candidates for relocation or elimination--such as the Montreal Expos and Tampa Bay Devil Rays--would also be inclined to stay open for business since a work stoppage could be deadly.

In fact, the ability of some teams to ride out labor strife--especially those belonging to media giants, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Anaheim Angels, and Atlanta Braves--could make life miserable for the little guys. (That assumes, of course, that the shareholders of News Corp. (NWS ), Disney (DIS ), and AOL Time Warner (AOL ) don't protest too loudly.)

The same can be said of large-market clubs that are part of sports empires, especially the rich-as-Midas New York Yankees.

For midmarket teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks, an impasse cuts both ways. On the one hand, going dark for any extended period of time would be painful. On the other, they surely recognize that a failure to resolve financial disparities once and for all may result in their continually teetering on the financial brink. But theirs are the "swing votes" Selig will need to deliver a new collective bargaining agreement for Major League Baseball. Or should it be renamed the Major League Balkans?

Carter teaches The Business of Sport at the University of Southern California Graduate School of Business.

By David Carter

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