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Sunday, November 23, 2003
Updated: November 24, 1:30 PM ET
Game needs firm push forward

By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com

Nov. 23

Oh, it was one bright autumn afternoon followed by harvest nights of a postseason, from the rise (and eventual fall) of the Cubs ... to the Red Sox doing a Bela Lugosi against Oakland ... to arguably the greatest game ever played in Yankee Stadium ... to Josh Beckett.

But it was still one postseason, against the backdrop of a 2002 postseason that was played in the shadows of 10 months of labor talks that were conducted in an entertainment industry like they wanted to turn back the clock to The Dark Ages.

Bud Selig
Selig's 30 percent ownership share of the Brewers is held in trust.

And now, again, there is a gathering storm on baseball's Doppler screen, or, really, several small fronts that could converge at a time when the game could and should be forging forward. These are fronts that have to be addressed and broken up before they bog down this sport that somehow survives the owners who prefer inertia to leadership and continue to look at labor through Wal-Mart eyes instead of dealing with the fact that in this entertainment industry labor is product.

First, there is the perception of mistrust with the Commissioner's Office. No one else could or would have saved baseball in Milwaukee, or cares any more about his hometown. But just the fact that state legislators and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are calling for audits of the books and raising questions about where the taxpayers' money went is a resounding embarrassment to baseball.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Selig doesn't own the Brewers (wink, wink). No one can blame Selig for his annoyance with his image and public perception, but part of leadership is a balance of perception and reality; see Churchill, Reagan and JFK. And Selig does not exactly stand out in front of the game he loves as a dashing, dynamic presence. The public perception is that he isn't a legitimate commissioner because he is an owner, and while no commissioner is really independent, the interim nature of his rise created perception problems. Then throw in the fact that the Brewers have been an abject disaster for a decade. Now these questions, raised by taxpayers who paid for Selig's park and legislators that he lobbied and it is necessary for all questions to be cleared up posthaste for it not to taint the man who is bringing Pete Rose back into the game.

Second, there is the Montreal issue, which might rival Rose's betting on Reds games as their manager for scandalous implications. Jayson Stark's piece detailing all the conflicts of this situation -- from the fact that the 29 other clubs who own the Expos have to be privy to any offers made to Vladimir Guerrero or anyone else, to the clear implication that the owners of the wild-card contenders did not want any further September expenses, which in turn helped their own teams in the race, raise issues that may not go away.

It is widely reported that there are a number of owners who are sick and tired of putting money into the Montreal fiasco, especially since they were told this was a one-year, one-time only situation. One can be certain that their anger has little to do with integrity, only cash flow.

Third, there is the steroid issue, which has already gotten far more analytical space than the Medicare bill. Look, nothing is going to change the minds of those who believe in the French system where one is guilty until proven innocent, when it comes to Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, and we're not likely to know the truth from 1998-2002 until the Balco investigation unravels. But the union and owners have to work together for the big picture, which is credibility in a business often defined by numbers. The program that is now in place is hardly tough, but it has to be fairly and enthusiastically administered by both sides.

Finally, there is the alleged collusion issue. The union has gathered a ton of information over the last two years (yes, Mary, one -- Mark Loretta -- of the 240-something potential free agents now flooding the market signed during the season). But while the recession should be a market correction and there are a lot of agents unable to fulfill promises, if the owners really do get caught rigging the market everyone involved should 1) be drummed out of the game and 2) sent to Cape Cod Vocational high school. If they are colluding, how dumb are they? The market will take care of itself. The ratio of revenues to player salaries is changing dramatically.

But whether or not they are colluding is part of a larger issue -- that after the 10 months of aborted contraction and messy labor negotiations (on both sides) when they finally did reach an agreement, they had an opportunity to move forward and try to grow the game in a partnership between owners and the human product that the owners need to sell. When it was suggested that there be a private, week-long brainstorming session with representatives from ownership, GMs, agents, players and creative people outside -- or on the periphery of the game -- to try to come up with ideas for moving forward, Selig promised he was going to initiate some serious efforts to that end.

Nothing has happened, and the trust between owners and players is in reverse, headed back to the courthouse. Is this all Selig's fault? No, he has to corral 28 owners, many of whom have that Wal-Mart mentality that lives for union-busting and burning down the landscapes of family and small businesses across America. The Players' Association leadership, too, lives in a fiery NLRB world where they never dare lay down their arms for fear the enemy will strike at dawn.

No consumer wants to hear billionaires whine about millionaires. No one wants to hear about a union leader dismissing steroid testing, or that the owner-commissioner ripped off the taxpayers of Wisconsin.

If all of these fronts should converge in the next few months, then the boon of October will quickly evaporate. Selig has to quickly prove his innocence and restore the trust of the people in Wisconsin as well as the baseball consumers. He's got to get the Expos dilemma resolved before it expands from folly to scandal. The owners and the players have to rouse their leaderships to work together on the public perceptions surrounding steroids and the significance of the home run record; Selig has got to stop worrying about satisfying clueless owners; and Donald Fehr has got to realize he's moved way beyond the shadow of Marvin Miller and both sides have to creatively move the game forward.

And if they can't? This weekend, which is the 40th anniversary of what really began the '60s, hopefully their sons and their daughters will rise beyond their command and force the times to change. This past October we saw how good baseball can be, but it needs someone or something to blast it forward into the 21st century.

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