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Baseball needs a plan for parity

In the bad old days, the clock to the next labor showdown already would be ticking. Twenty months from the expiration of the current deal, the two sides would be engaged in preliminary saber rattling, laying groundwork for yet another ugly dispute.

Those days mercifully are gone. A work stoppage before the 2012 season is almost unthinkable. Yet, baseball cannot turn complacent, even as it generates record revenues in a battered economy.

Now, amid peace and prosperity, is the time to push forward. As a new season opens Sunday night, the circumstances are nearly ideal. Commissioner Bud Selig says it over and over when talking about the sport's renaissance -- he never imagined that attendance would reach its current level, or that high-revenue teams would share as much money as they do with low-revenue clubs. The issue of performance-enhancing drugs is fading. MLB.com and the MLB Network are driving fresh revenues. The sport faces only one major problem -- the renewed threat to competitive balance, the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. The players, owners and Selig need to attack the problem with every ounce of energy and every bit of brainpower they can muster. The new special committee for on-field matters -- composed of four managers, eight front-office executives, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and author George Will -- is only a start. The committee started off working on smaller, easily correctable issues -- the elimination of an off-day during the League Championship Series, for example. The bigger stuff will come later, but the start of the season will make it more difficult for managers, in particular, to devote time to brainstorming. Find that time. The expiration of the current CBA on Dec. 11, 2011, amounts to a deadline for change. The two sides have a rare opportunity to pursue creative answers. The negotiations should not be as complex or contentious as in the past. We all know the parameters. The players never will agree to a salary cap. The owners know better than to even revive such talk. But unlike in the NFL, teams draw from the majority of their revenue from local and not national sources -- a built-in inequity if there ever was one.

If the new union leader, Michael Weiner, wants to leave his mark, he need not extract major concessions from his management counterpart, Rob Manfred. He need only work with Manfred to establish a blueprint for increased competitive balance in the new collective bargaining agreement.

Baseball already has come a long way since expanding revenue-sharing and introducing a luxury tax in the 2002 agreement. More work needs to be done -- on the amateur draft, the conduct of low-revenue clubs and yes, realignment. But the sport no longer is fighting uphill.

In the seven seasons that followed, 24 of the 30 teams reached the postseason, 12 teams made the Series and six became champions.

That's progress, and the game's revamped economic system deserves at least part of the credit, if not a significant chunk.

The eight teams that failed to reach the postseason from '02 to '09 -- the Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, Reds, Royals and Nationals/Expos -- all were mismanaged and have only themselves to blame.

So, what's next?

Not further increases in revenue sharing -- the high-revenue teams are tired of funding certain low-revenue clubs that A) decline to spend the money they are given and B) cannot get out of their own way.

Noneconomic solutions are the answer, and baseball does not lack for possibilities.

The introduction of a worldwide draft and cap on draft-pick bonuses would better redistribute top amateur players to the teams that need them most. Fixing the draft is more complicated than it sounds, but Bud Selig says the issue is now a priority; the players and owners pushed it aside in previous negotiations to focus on economic issues.

Realignment, too, is complex -- and controversial. Selig has long favored the idea, but he also favors an unbalanced schedule, the better to preserve rivalries. Such conflicts are inherent in virtually any realignment proposal; none will be perfect nor embraced by all. But, really, how difficult can this be?

Find a way to give lesser clubs a better chance to compete. Tweak the schedule if necessary. And expand the postseason to enable more teams to qualify.

Selig sometimes annoys fans by harping on the growth of the game during his tenure, a period that also includes his cancellation of the 1994 World Series due to a work stoppage and his presiding over the Steroid Era.

The bottom line, though, is that baseball is indeed in a remarkable place, a place that was inconceivable only 15 years ago, when the strike of 1994-95 left so many fans frustrated and even alienated from the sport.

Selig, in the twilight of his career, is in position to cement his legacy. He led the sport out of adversity. His final test is how he builds on success.