Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Did Sonia Save Baseball?
As I noted a few weeks back, Annie and I have a very slight acquaintance with Judge Sonia Sotomayor, newly nominated for the Supreme Court. As our interactions with her were entirely pleasant, we were thrilled that Obama chose her for the opening.

My affection for Sotomayor began fourteen years ago, when she issued the injunction that ended the 1994-95 baseball strike after nearly nine months and a canceled World Series. The president alluded to this decision in his nomination announcement yesterday:
"During her tenure on the district court, she presided over roughly 450 cases," he said. "One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994 and '95."

To laughter, the president said, "in a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce -- a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere -- she issued an injunction that helped end the strike."

"Some say," the president said, "that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball."

I thought this was a bit much, but I do believe that by bringing the strike to an end when she did—and specifically forestalling the start of the 1995 season being played with replacement “scab” players—Sotomayor significantly reduced the damage done by the work stoppage. Had the season began with the non-union players, baseball’s history would have been scarred by the labor dispute--something I think would have been far more damaging than the retrospective understanding that subsequent years were marred by steroid use. For instance, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games-played streak--which did so much to remind people what they loved about the game--would have ended if those games had counted. That’s the sort of thing people simply don’t get over.

George Will, however, disagrees:
"The president is a gentleman and a scholar and a great ornament to our society, but he's not a great baseball historian," Will told us.

"He says that when she ended the baseball impasse that was interrupting play in 1994 and 1995, she saved baseball," Will says. "Far from it. What she did was overturn in a sense, the essence, the underlies, the essential theory of American labor relations, which is the parties should slug it out because they know best and whoever wins, wins."

Will says that "in fact, what she did was take sides, took union's side against the management, and in so-doing, wasted 262 days of negotiations. That, far from saving baseball, consigned baseball to seven more years of an unreformed economic system, which happened to be the seven worst years in terms of competitive balance."

Sotomayor, Will says, "delayed the restructuring of baseball. So I would say that far from her saving baseball, as the president says, that in fact, baseball thrives now because we got over the damage that her judicial activism did in that strike."

As much as I often want to punch Will in the nose for his superciliousness and generally douche-ish inclinations, I’ve mostly enjoyed his writings about baseball. “Men at Work” is an excellent book, offering strong insights into what drove Tony Gwynn and Orel Hershiser to the greatness they showed in the ‘80s and ‘90s while exhibiting Will’s genuine love for the game on both an intellectual and experiential level; I can relate.

Here, though, he’s just dead wrong, and I have to believe that the view is driven by his inner partisan rather than his inner seamhead. His opinion presumes much about the nature of that dispute—specifically, that it was rooted in differences so pronounced that their substantive resolution was of greater consequence than getting back to the game itself.

Anyone who’s examined the history of baseball’s labor conflicts understands that the real story as the collective bargaining agreement wound down in the early ‘90s was the determination of small- and mid-market owners to break the MLB Players Association—as much because these rich and powerful men were infuriated at their repeated losses to the union as for actual bottom-line considerations. Thus, Fay Vincent was pushed aside as Commissioner in 1992 and replaced with “interim” Commissioner Bud Selig, who retained his ownership of the Milwaukee Brewers (and as such made a joke of the Commissioner’s putative responsibility to act “in the best interests of baseball”). While MLBPA honcho Don Fehr seemed every bit as much of a dick as Czar Bud, the union essentially was playing defense. But a faction led by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wouldn’t compromise, and basically forced the strike. About five weeks later, the World Series was canceled. A few months afterward, spring training opened in Florida and Arizona with non-union players; despite the public outcry against this, the owners were fully ready to begin the season (and, to my memory, charge full ticket prices) using them. Sotomayor’s ruling forestalled all that, effectively compelling the owners to send the scab players home and ensuring that the 1995 season would be played with the big-leaguers.

But the real vapidity of Will’s argument is shown by the fact that it did take seven more years to resolve those underlying issues—and meanwhile the game thrived (albeit thanks in large part to steroid-fueled home run binging). The CBA was first revised in 1997 and began to address some of the owners’ concerns through the “luxury tax” provision and revenue sharing. Those measures were expanded upon in 2002, when Will evidently believes the “economic system” was reformed; the owners finally achieved a measure of success by threatening to contract two teams, but both sides blinked at the prospect of another long strike. Ultimately, the magnitude of the changes ultimately agreed upon that year didn't come close to the abolition of the reserve clause in the ‘70s that ushered in the age of free agency.

As for the “competitive balance” line, that’s a canard: during the period to which Will alludes (1995-2002), six NL teams won the pennant, and five different clubs won the World Series. It would have been more except for the fact that the Yankees put together a historically great team that won four titles between 1996 and 2000—and did so not primarily by buying free agents, as they did before and since, but by home-growing two future Hall of Famers (Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera) and other big stars like Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte, and surrounding them with talented grinders like Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton. There are many previous periods of baseball history in which you could take an eight-year stretch and find just two or three champions, and maybe four pennant winners in both leagues; during the '50s, a time I suspect Will would rhapsodize as a golden age for baseball, the Yankees won the AL pennant in all but two years, and the Dodgers, Braves and Giants ruled the NL.

And all this is even before you consider the silliness of comparing baseball, with its monopoly protections, to other fields in which “the essential theory of American labor relations” might be more pertinent.

Thus: suck it, Poindexter.


Anonymous said...

Prior to the '97-'02 changes baseball had been, internally, much more like a conservative ideal of a free market, with labor selling its services on an open market for free agents, and business owners competing against one another with little but a type of anti-trust rule to prevent collusion, much as we have in the wider market. Yes, baseball as a whole had an antitrust exemption, but that's still true today, and competition among teams within baseball was understood to apply anti-trust principles, given the penalties an arbitrator handed out the last time the owners tried to collude.

The big change since then has been to move to much more like a social democracy, with welfare payments from the richer, more successful teams to the poorer, less successful ones. This acts, as intended, to inhibit the freedom of movement of the richest teams, and also (indirectly) of the players.

Is George Will openly conceding that he applauds this change, and sees the need for it? Does he, then, support a robust safety net and transfer payments for actual poor people? Or merely for small market baseball team owners?

Will once remarked that a serviceable summary of conservatives' goal was to create as world as much like that of 1900 as possible. Does he think the new labor regime looks more like the baseball world of 1900? Well, the players lost in '02 so I guess he counts that a win. Anything to bring back the reserve clause.

The Navigator said...

sorry, that was me.

David said...

Yeah, I was wondering if maybe our readership had increased by 50 percent or something...

I think Will was just looking for any rationale with which to take issue with the Democratic president's nominee.