IT WOULD BE so easy to say "A pox on both your houses" when discussing major league baseball's omnipresent labor-management dispute. Yet, even though so many of today's players are rich, self-centered, spoiled brats, it's impossible to root against them in their ongoing battle with the owners. Obnoxious, manipulative liars that they are, it is the owners, not the players, who are destroying our national pastime and who gave life to the ultimate sports truism: Baseball must be a great game to survive the people who run it. Always keep in mind that it was the owners who:
* Devised the current three-division setup and balanced schedules in both the American and National Leagues, thereby destroying time-honored rivalries and most likely ensuring that at least four teams with better records than playoff participants will be sitting home when the post-season begins. Also remember that this new alignment guarantees that the World Series, once an early October afternoon event, now will be played on November nights. Leftover Thanksgiving turkey anyone?
* Refused to budge on free agency for more than 100 years, thereby tying a player to a team for life. Come contract time, if the player didn't like an owner's salary offer, it was "Take it or you're out of a job." The inequity of this system, and the player resentment it engendered, are among the reasons why today's players demand--and receive--millions of dollars a year for competing in a little boys' game.
* Insisted that, when arbitration and free agency became the law of the baseball land in the late 1970s, the rich clubs would buy all the best players and dominate the standings and the turnstiles, thereby leaving the small-market franchises at the bottom of the heap. In reality, baseball never has enjoyed a better distribution of power. From 1978 to 1992, 13 different teams won the World Series, an unprecedented string of variety. Moreover, last season's Toronto Blue Jays became the first team to capture back-to-back titles since the Yankees of 1977-78. That 15-year gap without a repeat champ is the longest in baseball history.
* Took baseball games off free TV and sold the broadcast rights to another uncaring monopoly, cable television. And to make sure that TV and radio could stuff in more commercials, the baseball owners expanded the time between innings to two minutes (three during the All-Star Game, playoffs, and World Series). So what once was a crisp, two- or two-and-a-half-hour game now is a three-to-four-hour trip to Boredomville. If this wasn't bad enough, announcers (both radio and TV) push products in between pitches, and the between-innings commercials often spill over into the next inning, so, even with the expanded two-minute break, viewers and listeners often miss live game action. When the cameras finally do return to the batter, fans are treated to behind-the-plate advertising. …