Talks, Balks, Walks

Talks

The nightmare scenario for those whose idea of sport is sufficiently perverse would be to have all four of our big-ticket national games sidelined and sidetracked with epic labor meltdowns all at the same times. Now wouldn't that be hilarious.

Technically, there is not much of the remote chance of that and maybe there's the better chance that next July we'll collide with Mars, to borrow a saucy aside from Cole Porter. But the very notion of such an idiotic state of affairs bubbling forth with volcanic fury is too delicious to be totally ignored. Here, for the sake of one's savage amusement, is how it could happen.

First we need the current and desperately ongoing NFL contract talks, which are perched delicately at the make-or-break precipice as this is written, to totally collapse in a fury of acrimony leading to a knockout of a lockout that lasts at least a year and a half. Sure that is highly unlikely and there could be a miraculous intervention of common sense this very week. But in a madcap showdown of the spoiled, clueless, millionaire players jousting with the avaricious, billionaire plutocrats who own them, the worst case scenario might be divinely inspired.

Next it would be required that the NBA follow suit which at the moment looks like a sure thing. Pro basketball's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires at the end of this season, mere weeks away. Months in advance, the owners -- four fifths of whom claim to be losing their shirts -- have been warning that they intend to demand revolutionary retrenchment including the end of guaranteed contracts. Yikes!

The bombs have already been tossed in this blossoming fiasco. Lads on both sides of this lethal equation can't wait to get to the barricades. The NBA feud is the most promising because the game has the most problems plus the owners say they'll even open their books to prove their case, which is unheard of in American sport. In most of these disputes the players have the public relations edge. After all, it's hard to be a fan of owners. But too many players work about six minutes a night score four points per game and get paid somewhere in the five to ten million dollar range per annum. They'll have trouble commanding sympathy. The guessing here is the NBA's labor war will be the nastiest with their working stiffs standing the best chance of getting hosed.

As luck would have it both baseball and hockey also have impending labor talks although both don't rear until next year. Both have been pretending lately to have optimistic situations, at least compared with the frightful prospects that football and basketball are dealing with. But given that MLB and the NHL are the only sporting operations to have endured the historic humiliation and shameful disgrace of total shutdowns destroying full seasons and cancelling signature events we should never assume anything.

The hockey kids have rebounded better than most expected from their mid-'90s disaster. Hard to believe the players would mess with what they've earned at so great a price. But they now have Don Fehr, the ex-MLBPA executive director and devout disciple of Marvin Miller, in charge of their union giving them the best leadership they've ever had. If Fehr could lead the relatively wishy-washy baseball boys out onto the bricks he could do the same with the more intense hockey warriors. Weak franchises are the NHL's biggest problem. If teams fold, the hockey labor scene would get muddled overnight.

As for baseball, it seems interesting that the owners have already begun very preliminary exchanges with Michael Weiner, the new and entirely untested successor to Fehr as boss of the baseball union. It's been 16 years since the last and greatest crisis and all the key players -- save for Czar Bud Selig -- are new. The waters are uncharted. Arousing additional concern are the rumors that Selig is thinking about proposing major re-alignment which could involve contraction, a fighting word. Don't worry. When it's baseball's turn there will be plenty of issues.

A pretty picture is it not? What you see on the fields and courts and rinks is not entirely what you get, any more.

Balks...

The revelation that Red Sox owner John Henry got socked with a half million dollar fine for uttering some mild complaints about MLB's controversial revenue sharing plan was arresting on several counts. Foremost, because the temperate Henry, no rocker of boats, hardly torched the system. Moreover, he's always been one of Bud Selig's personal pets and Selig plays favorites like no other commissioner in the game's history.

Makes you wonder what's in store for the Yanks' Hank Steinbrenner -- not one of Bud's pets -- who lately branded the system "Socialist" and with the sort of rhetorical flourish Hank alone is capable of spinning.

Few would argue that the manner by which MLB props up the game's weak sisters -- who sit about twiddling their thumbs -- by punishing strong teams -- who are willing to reinvest their profits -- is ideal, let alone fair. Keep in mind that the AL team that most benefits is the Royals, owned by the game's richest man, while the NL team that benefits the most is the Pirates, owned by the game's most inept people. Why should the Red Sox, Yankees and the few other clubs in the same boat appreciate this decided disparity, although it's also a fact that both Boston and New York -- and especially the Yankees who've been by far the most heavily taxed -- have been plenty good sports about this nonsense over the years.

The better question is, where does Czar Selig get off denying these guys the fundamental right to speak their piece? He should have let Henry's alleged indiscretion slide and he should ignore the oafish, elder Steinbrenner brother too and be grateful that two of the game's stalwarts are willing to help carry the game's deadbeats. Then he should ask the owners of the Royals and Prates to either perform professionally and ethically or get out of the game.

Walks...

Seems not a month goes by without our losing another of the titans of that postwar interlude baseball historians increasingly regard as the game's true "golden era." This time it's Duke Snider fast on the heels of Bobby Feller.

Now an accepted legend as an eminent member of the Dodgers' brilliant ''Boys of Summer'' cast, it's interesting to note that when he first became eligible for the Hall of Fame, in 1970, the Duke got only 17 percent of the votes cast by the ever nimble Baseball Writers Association of America in which such honors are not always wisely vested. Ten years later Duke got elevated with a resounding 86 percent so he either got better in retirement or the writers got smarter. It ranks among the largest leaps a player ever made in HOF balloting.

Snider was a fine and exceptionally stylish player but his sometimes detached manner and vague moods made him seem less than he might have been. Did he have talent ranking with that of Mantle and Mays, his contemporary New York immortals with him whom he's incessantly compared? Maybe, but his achievements weren't comparable. And he tailed off fairly young. All his best works were packed into a span of a decade (1949-1959) when he hit 359 of his 407 homers while batting over .300 six times with a high of .341 in '54. Still his final log, including a lifetime .295 with a modest 2,116 base hits, wasn't stunning. The depths of Duke's greatness aren't easier to peg now than they were back then.

Yet at his peak -- 1953 thru 1957 -- when he averaged 42 homers a season when it really meant something and roamed centerfield with an eagle's grace and majesty -- he was surely stride for stride with Mickey and Willie and that's where he's destined to remain in romantic baseball myth. Above all, "The Duke" looked every bloody inch a ballplayer at a time when it was never a more regal thing to be.

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