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The Daily Tar Heel

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems For Baseball

The days are growing longer. Soon -- we hope, at least -- they'll start becoming warmer.

And the Boys of Summer have begun reporting to their training camps.

You can almost smell it, can't you? Hot dogs and pretzels at the ballpark. The freshly cut grass, impossibly green for this time of year.

But not all of baseball's green is so enticing to the game's fans.

Money, never far off baseball's radar screen, has become the topic of conversation heading into the 2001 season.

And it stinks.

It would be nice to open a newspaper or visit a Web site without encountering yet another story detailing a contract squabble.

But that's not possible these days. The reason? There's hardly such thing as a contract anymore.

A star signs a long-term deal and talks about how happy he is to get it done. Then, some other guy -- sometimes a player not even as good (gasp!) as the star who just signed -- writes his name for more money.

The star is immediately not receiving his "fair market value." It's not about the money, mind you. It's more about respect. That's why the star must hold out and not participate in spring drills with his teammates.

At least, that's what Frank Thomas and some of his colleagues say.

Whatever.

Thomas, known as The Big Hurt, is acting more like The Big Jerk these days. He has yet to work out with his team, the Chicago White Sox, because he is unhappy with his contract.

His case is a touching one.

It seems that Thomas is due a base salary of only $9.9 million per year through the year 2006. In light of the recent signings of Alex Rodriguez (10 years, $252 million) with the Texas Rangers and Derek Jeter (10 years, $189 million) with the New York Yankees, $9.9 million simply isn't enough for a great hitter.

Strangely, it was enough for Thomas last season, when he was coming off the worst two years of his career. He batted just .265 in 1998 and came back in '99 with just 15 homers and 77 RBI.

Not once in those two seasons did Thomas offer to give money back to the White Sox because he was performing poorly.

But the instant he returned to his old form -- he posted a .328 average, 43 homers and 143 RBI in 2000 -- the team owed him a raise.

That's not the way things are supposed to work. Players gain financial security by signing long-term deals. In the process, they forfeit the right to play the market every year.

It's a simple trade-off.

The White Sox don't owe Thomas any more money, just as the San Francisco Giants don't owe Barry Bonds a contract extension right now, just as the Los Angeles Dodgers don't owe Gary Sheffield a trade on demand.

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The bickering gets old, but it's tough to blame the players for trying. On half of the occasions they ask for the moon, the owners are dumb enough to give it to them.

One time that won't happen, however, is at the end of this season. Major League Baseball's labor agreement expires Oct. 31, 2001, and the owners will look to implement a way to stop each other from sending player salaries into a new galaxy each off-season.

Players like the way things are now, of course, so another work stoppage is looming ominously on the horizon.

How will the two sides react?

If the players and owners are each willing to give a little bit, next season and the ones after it can be saved.

But if they act like big jerks, one of the world's sweetest games will have gone sour.

T. Nolan Hayes can be reached at nono@email.unc.edu.