Baseball is baseball . . . so what?

By George Will

This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
Volume 7 Number 2 - Winter 1994
Reprinted without permission

SECRETARY of Labor Robert Reich speculates that ``if the public is concerned about baseball, well, I imagine that a lot of members of Congress will give the president the authority that the president is seeking to order binding arbitration. But on the other hand, if the public basically wants to say, `A pox on both your houses,' well, at least we tried.'' Which is to say, the government is going to keep its ear pressed firmly to the ground, even though it is hard to look dignified in that position.

Actually, there is no need for it to get dirt in its ear. A few facts are clear: Baseball's core constituency consists of at most 15 million repeat customers; baseball is no longer even close to being the most popular sports component of the entertainment industry. There is no way to torture the word ``public'' to make a settlement of baseball's dispute important to ``the public.''

Reich offers a number of reasons for binding arbitration, perhaps hopingthat quantity can substitute for quality. He says ``many cities'' are ``dependent'' on baseball. But no metropolis large enough to support a major league team can be ``dependent'' on it. He says ``many cities have put up enormous amounts of money for stadiums.'' True, but that does not generate a federal obligation to guarantee that those dubious investments -- civic socialism -- shall always be remunerative. Reich rightly notes that Florida and Arizona have ``major'' stakes in spring training. But not even the Phoenix area, where seven of the 28 teams train for six weeks, is ``dependent'' on this.

Reich finally resorts to the rhetorical mode familiar regarding baseball. Call it Full Gush: Baseball ``is intimately related to the morale of the nation,'' and ``after all, baseball is baseball.'' But a tautology is not an argument. And such dewy-eyed sentimentality about baseball's status is a large part of baseball's problem. It is impossible to see clearly through misty eyes.

Gene Orza of the players association says that when FDR asked baseball tocontinue during the war, ``he didn't add up the dollars only. He recognized the impact of the sport on the national psyche.''

But this isn't 1942. Earth to Baseball: Has anyone noticed any changes in your game's standing with the public? Besides, the federal government is not an instrument of psychotherapy.

If Congress makes a federal issue of the mismanagement of this fraction of the entertainment industry, it will tempt disputants in many industries to hold out for similar treatment when they think it is in their interest. That is another reason why imposition of binding arbitration in baseball is bad public policy.

Denied the hope of an imposed solution, and face to face with the reality of replacement players and another ruined season, baseball's two sides may recognize that they are already in the realm of splittable differences. If so, Congress, by refusing to rescue them, will have facilitated success.

George Will is a Washington Post columnist.

Published 2/10/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.