Full-Court Press

By Paul Arnett

Friday, April 2, 1999

Baseball must take
control of salaries

THE dazzling performances of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the New York Yankees kept us from seeing the shady side of the street.

Major-league baseball fans not so willing to forgive, at least forgot the recent transgressions of the players and owners, thanks in part to the daily double of Sosa and McGwire.

The Yankees' awesome run captivated the nation as well. "Would they win more games than any team in history?" was a question asked and debated at water coolers and watering holes from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine. Once more, baseball was on the tip of everyone's tongue.

But whatever goodwill built last year may have been torn down during a savage off-season of free agent frenzy. Agreements reached with Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Albert Belle and Mo Vaughn will allow them to throw money around like Kenneth Starr.

Unfortunately, it also creates a great divide between the haves and the have-nots that will eventually lead to another impasse. Owners of small-market clubs such as Pittsburgh, Montreal, Oakland, Detroit and Cincinnati will want some kind of restructuring plan in place that allows them to compete with the bigger spenders.

How can the Pirates and their fans believe a winning season is possible when Brown can put Pittsburgh's entire payroll into his back pocket? They can't. And this is where a potential disaster resides.

THERE will be nothing special about New York's 1998 season should George Steinbrenner opt to buy and sell any player he chooses. Ho-hum, the Yankees won 100 games and swept through the World Series again.

A heftier luxury tax -- one that protects the sport from owners like Steinbrenner and Chicago's Jerry Reinsdorf --needs to be put in place and soon. On the one hand, some owners play hardball during a strike, crying loud and long for fiscal restraint.

"We've got to keep these players from ruining the game," they try to tell us. But as soon as the strike is over, they're at the forefront of signing players to mind-boggling contracts.

And just who pays for these sky-high deals? Why, the fans, of course. If they're not shelling out four figures to sit in the box seats to watch these high-priced stars, fans are digging deep into their pockets for the money to watch them on local cable.

Steinbrenner has a sweetheart television arrangement in New York that allows him to cover the costs of Roger Clemens, Bernie Williams, David Cone and Derek Jeter.

The Texas Rangers have also put together an attractive cable package that keeps them from falling too far off the pace set by Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

THIS weekend, major-league baseball makes its last run of the millennium. Fans across the country are wondering what McGwire and Sosa will do for an encore. Can the Yankees put together another magical season, or will it be the Dodgers or Atlanta Braves that finish at the top of the heap?

But for others, who find themselves in cities far removed from the bright lights, the question is, "How long before we go under?"

Some would say it's survival of the fittest, that expansion has created this black hole that threatens to suck everything down the drain.

Others will counter that if expansion is a viable plan, then something needs to be done to protect baseball's interest in the smaller towns.

Either way, somebody needs to do something before another work stoppage comes along to steal the fans' hearts away. Nobody wants it. But without a firm plan, it seems unavoidable.

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.

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