My life took on meaning when the Baltimore Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1996 World Series. Since that epiphany, the fate of the Orioles, and baseball in general, represented an integral part of my psyche, an allegiance and interest that set me apart from the mass of humanity striving to discover meaning in a world that offers none.
But now, as someone whose societal compass has been ripped away by the current baseball strike, I am haunted by a most basic question: How could something so integral to the definition of American society be snatched away by a few greedy owners, and, to a slightly less extent, greedy players?
What strikes me about the disappearance of baseball is how insignificant I feel as a fan, and how indifferent baseball is to those who have given it life. I've invested a lot of time and energy into baseball, and it pains me to see my investment turn sour. Yet I only have to cope with the mild emotional trauma, while cities, counties, businesses, and others have suffered significant financial loss and pain. It is unfair that these constituencies that provide the infrastructure around which baseball owners and players make millions, have no control or ownership over that in which they play an integral role. Baseball has taken our money and run.
The rational fan might accept the idea that baseball is merely a business, and therefore the players and owners are correct in taking whatever they can. But I cannot shake the notion that baseball is more than a business, that it is part of the fabric of our community and culture. Not unlike a museum, an orchestra, or an historic building, baseball is about what we care about, who we are, what we enjoy. It is past of our past, present, and future. To preserve that which defines us, the governance and ownership of baseball needs to be re-examined.
Fortunately, there is a corporate vehicle designed specifically for this sort of cultural and civic centerpiece: the non-profit organization. It is through non-profit organizations that a community can maintain some control over its cultural assets yet maintain some distance from their governance. The non-profit organization is not a government agency, and can avoid the pitfall and bureaucracies of government-run operations. It is also not solely motivated by profit, and can therefore successfully inject a societal component to its mission and financial goals. It is the unfortunate clash of profits with community investment and trust that has pulled baseball in two directions, and, as any Brooklyn resident can attest to, communities usually lose the tug of war.
Non-profit baseball teams could be efficiently run businesses, generate a surplus, and not be subject to the capricious fortunes of a few unstable individuals. Funds could come from a variety of sources, including the current sources, such as television, licensing of products, concessions, and attendance.
In addition, tax-deductible contributions could support a team in ways never before considered. Who could argue against a fund-raising drive to keep a Dave Winfield or a flame-throwing left-handed pitcher in town—or, perhaps more appropriate, donations to maintain natural grass in a stadium? Foundations could give to improve baseball's outreach program, re-energize the interest of our young people in the sport, or strengthen the minor-league system.
The drive for profit would be tempered with concern for the game and community. This is not to say that the bottom line needs to be compromised. The well-run team could use its surplus to build an endowment to support the team in perpetuity.There is a strong possibility that players' salaries would be reduced if baseball were non-profit, but not because the game would be poorer. The players are within their rights to seek as high a compensation level as possible if someone else is personally profiting from their efforts. Matching the owners' greed dollar for dollar will be somewhat less compelling if the owners represent the community.
Even if an agreement is reached by owners and players in the current strike, the lingering mistrust and structural adversarial relationship between owner and player does not bode well for the future. Baseball owes a debt to society because society gives it life. There can be no second missed World Series. The answer is to give baseball back to the people. And the way to do that is to make baseball non-profit.
This article originally appeared in the March 1995 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.