Play Ball!

Today, as pitchers and catchers report for the opening of spring training, we greet the beginning of the second consecutive baseball season without a collective bargaining agreement. There doesn't seem to be an agreement in sight either.


To an uninformed observer, the issues come down to power and money. Any successful agreement must take into account these two issues in such a way that both sides can claim that they have made gains in at least one.


I do not pretend to have a final package that would solve baseball's problems, but I do have a proposal that addresses the twin issues of power and money that I believe could be the starting point for an acceptable compromise.


The heart of this proposal is expansion. The addition of teams in Florida and Arizona will add jobs to the players and revenue to the existing owners. But this expansion was done with no vision for the future of the game. Baseball has yet to even determine which league these teams will be joining. To this writer, the driving motivation behind this current round of expansion appears to be an attempt by the owners to bring in additional revenue through franchise fees, which will cover any potential drop in advertising revenue due to the declining interest in the sport, as compared to football and basketball. The future of the sport itself would seem to be not even a secondary issue to Major League Baseball.


What I propose is radically different. Add four new teams in time to begin the 2000 season. The teams would be based in Mexico City, Caracas, San Juan and Havana.


By doing so Baseball would accomplish a number of very important things which would strengthen the game well into the 21st century. First, it would bring a burst of favorable publicity and excitement to the game which it sorely needs just now. Second it would expand it's revenue base through the increased broadcast rights and licensing fees from merchandise sales. Thirdly, it would expand the talent pool, both by being able to tap into and enlarge the Latin market. Through the excitement generated by the publicity of this dramatic expansion, it would be able to draw back into baseball some of the athletes now being lost to other sports.


Finally, by bringing into baseball, and by extension into the cultural heart of America, what are normally considered Third World Countries, baseball would be elevating them to a par with ourselves, helping to eliminate racial stereotypes in this country, thereby demonstrating the power of sports to improve the quality of life for people throughout this hemisphere.


The key to this expansion is Havana. I am not blind to either the failing economy or the Castro dictatorship. This franchise would be awarded to Fidel Castro with the provision that he appoint a caretaker government and step down from power, opening the way to the return of the Cuban diaspora and free and fair elections. The anti-Castro forces would gain by his removal from power and their subsequent ability to repatriate their money and rebuild the Cuban economy. Castro would gain by finding an easy out from the situation in which he now finds himself. That is presiding over the destruction of the economy, and with that, most of the social gains that his government has managed to accomplish. He would also be secure in achieving a unique place in 20th century history. Who else could lay claim to be responsible for bringing both Communism and Democracy to his country. Baseball would gain by being able to say, who or what else could accomplish this.


The players would gain far more than just 104 additional major league roster spots. Each team would have 4 or 5 farm teams thereby increasing the number of athletes who would get a legitimate shot at a major league career, as well as additional roster space for the veterans who are hanging on in the minors, hoping for one more shot. There would also be countless other job opportunities for retired athletes in the front office and broadcast booths, in newspaper columns and sports talks shows as well as in sales positions of countless local and multi-national companies who find it advantageous to hire local sports heros.


The owners would gain by the incredible increase of money flowing into it's coffers. Outside of Los Angles and Miami, I doubt that baseball currently derives much income from the internal latin market, to say nothing of Latin America itself.


Baseball must resolve the crisis that it currently finds itself in. A crisis of declining popularity, the draining away of the most talented athletes to other sports and an increasing antagonism between it's principal partners that threatens it's very survivability. My proposal offers a way out of this impasse by offering such an unimaginable increase of riches that both sides should be willing to compromise on the issue of power.


There is also a moral element to this proposal that should not be ignored. All previous expansions dealt only with money. This proposal takes into account the ability of sports to improve the economy of struggling countries and the potential to liberate one country from the shackles of dictatorship. The privilege of participating in such an enterprise, along with the jobs and money to be gained, should be more than enough to overcome the shortsightedness of both the players union, as well as the owners.


This essay was written on February 15, 1996.