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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Baseball's Timely Fix
By Louis Phillips

I am not a soothsayer. To read the future, I do not rip apart entrails of live chickens nor do I cast bones of animals into a circle drawn in dust. But when it comes to the future of Major League Baseball, I and numerous sports mavens and their brow-beaten relatives can easily see the handwriting on the wall. The market for free agents is in for a big change, and as free agents go, so goes our nation.

In the next decade, not one baseball team (with the possible exception of the New York Yankees) will be able to afford the $50 million per year price tag commanded by superstars and their overworked agents. Thus, there is only one solution in sight: time-sharing. I predict that the time-sharing of baseball superstars will become the norm. Let's say, for example, Barry Bonds demands $43 million a year for four years, a signing bonus of $12 million (deferred), and $1 million for every home run above Hank Aaron's all-time total. Although such a salary is not exorbitant when compared to the take-home-pay of your average Enron or Halliburton executive, it is substantial enough to cause some general managers and team owners to have second thoughts. So what should be done?

Let team owners stew in their own juices? Of course not. Nothing is more tragic than a team owner stewing.

No. The answer is time-sharing of players.

Since not one major league team (with the possible exception of the New York Yankees) will be able to pay Barry Bonds's salary, four or five clubs will chip in and, over the course of a given season, share the superstar for a specified number of games and/or innings. Thus, baseball strategy could well be determined by the availability of a star player at a crucial time during the year. For example, Bonds or Pedro Martinez or Alex Rodriguez could play thirty games with the Yankees, twenty games with the Tigers, thirteen games with the Mets, and even (though I blush to say it) a few games with the lowly Red Sox. Where any of those teams finishes during a given season might depend on whether Barry is slugging for the Yankees in April or the Red Sox during the stretch drive in September. At the very least, it will add all sorts of new intricacies to how a manager uses his players during the season, which is sure to please fantasy league aficionados and dim-witted sportswriters looking for yet another angle to analyze in the morning paper.

Obviously, some baseball teams are richer than others (see Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations), but under Major League Baseball's time-sharing plan, a player such as Mike Mussina could even be made available to a team on an inning by inning basis. In the near future, it is not inconceivable that Andy Pettitte could pitch two or three innings for the Houston Astros and then turn around and pitch two or three innings for the opposing team. Or he could travel a few miles down the road to pitch for the Texas Rangers. Four or five days later (depending on the rotation) Pettitte could fly to the West Coast and pitch for the Dodgers or Angels.

Thus, rosters that were once engraved in stone, or at least in wet cement, will become fluid and dynamic. American League fans who have been deprived of seeing Barry Bonds perform (except during the few games of inter-league play) will not only have the opportunity to watch him on the field, but will also be able to see him slug home runs as a member (albeit temporary) of their favorite team. In addition, if a team could not afford, say, a Randy Johnson to pitch for them, that team could then have the option of working out a contract that stipulated Randy Johnson could not pitch against them, either.

When you think about it, time-sharing possibilities are mind-boggling. I mean, why not allow players to be purchased for single at bats during important games, or great pitchers to be hired by the out (which would give a whole new meaning to the term "closer")? Have forkball. Will travel.

I'm sure Bud Selig thinks about these things. He is, after all, the master of revenue enhancement, skillfully persuading cities to pony up billions in publicly financed stadia for all those struggling baseball franchises across the nation. But even Bud knows that someday the gravy train will run dry, that there is always going to be a sorry team in Detroit or Milwaukee or Pittsburgh or wherever, new stadium or not. So if these lowly teams are going to compete, they've got to have more revenue options than just luxury boxes and ten-dollar hot dogs. Besides, if teams can rent their players by the day or by the month, there's a lot better chance that superstars will stick around for at least one season, maybe even two, which these days might seem pretty darn loyal to the average fan.

Mark my words: time-sharing in the major leagues will come to pass before the baseball owners decide what to do about the Montreal Expos.

—EFQ

Essays and articles by LOUIS PHILLIPS have appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Elysian Fields Quarterly, San Francisco Chronicle, Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Emmy, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, The Armchair Detective, Playbill, Family Circle, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and many other publications.

© 2004 Louis Phillips

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