Not so long ago, baseball was always played on real grass in the open air, and a strike was something a batter had three of before he was out. But at the artificial-turfed, fiber-glass-roofed Metrodome in Minneapolis, the site of this year's Major League All-Star game, the talk last week was about a different sort of strike. The outcome of the contest, a dull 6-1 romp by the National League' was overshadowed by the previous day's announcement that the players intend to walk off the diamonds on Aug. 6 unless they can resolve their differences with club owners over salaries and pension benefits. At issue is the owners' contention that the business of baseball, despite the continuing popularity of the national pastime, has become a big-league money loser.
Baseball faces the same problems that have tormented most professional team sports in recent years: surging players' salaries, contract hassles, shaky finances, sudden ownership changes and heightened economic competition between clubs and leagues. Only about seven of the 21 teams in the National Hockey League are making money. The National Basketball Association has bounced back from its huge losses of the early 1980s, but eight of the league's 23 teams are still in the red. Even the mighty National Football League has been under a bit of pressure from its pesky new competitor, the United States Football League. Concludes Paul Mooney, president of the Boston Bruins hockey team: "Sports teams, by and large, are not bonanzas."
Babe Ruth, who made $80,000 a year in his prime, would be stunned by what baseball players earn today. Since 1976 the average salary in the major leagues has jumped from $44,000 to $360,000 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED estimates that at least 36 players will make $1 million or more this year. Mike Schmidt, the Philadelphia Phillies' slugging first baseman, tops the list with $2.13 million. Salaries in other sports are also reaching the stratosphere. Doug Flutie, the quarterback for the New Jersey Generals of the U.S.F.L., has a five-year contract reported to be worth $7 million. Basketball experts expect that the New York Knicks will pay Center Patrick Ewing, this year's No.1 draft choice in the N.B.A., at least $1.2 million a year.
Baseball owners say that player salaries are pushing the sport to the brink of financial ruin. By their tabulation, the 26 major-league teams lost $43 million in 1984 and could have a deficit of about $100 million in 1988. Nonsense, say the players, who accuse owners of using legal but oddball accounting methods to create paper losses. New owners, in particular, mark down profits for tax purposes by taking depreciation allowances that are supposed to account for the declining value of their players. In addition, the clubs often count long-term deferred compensation to players as a current expense. George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, admits that only a small portion of his team's $9 million 1984 deficit was an actual cash loss.